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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Toward a Messianic Jewish Epistemology

In his discussion of interreligious dialogue in “The Open Secret,” Lesslie Newbigin refers to—and takes issue with—the views of John Hick. Hick prefers to ground interreligious discussion around the abstract concept of “Transcendent Being,” the latter being a verbal noun form of the verb “to be,” but which, in this highly abstruse high-level philosophical discussion, “is devoid of any subject, that is, devoid of any reference to something that is,” but is rather a philosophical construct that is postulated [1995:166]. Newbigin finds this type of discussion unsatisfactory, not the least because it is the province only of those whose education and predilections suit them for finding such discussions credible and satisfying.

In addition, he states,
It is not obvious that the very abstract mental concept, which only a very small number of philosophers trained in certain disciplines are capable of grasping, is a more reliable starting point for the adventure of truth seeking than is the fact of Jesus Christ. Every attempt to form a coherent understanding of the whole human situation starts out from an initial act of faith. There is no possibility of knowing anything except on the basis of something that is, at least provisionally, taken for granted. . . . My point is that I know of no basis, no axiom, no necessity of thought that requires me to believe that a historic person and a series of historic events provide a less reliable starting point for the adventure of knowing than does the highly sophisticated mental construct of a philosopher [1995:166].

This raises the intriguing question as to what pivotal and axiomatic event or reality should and does form the basis of Messianic Jewish epistemology and identity.

Should the starting point of Messianic Jewish identity and epistemology be the created order? “I know I exist in a universe not created by me, which self-evidently must have been created by a something/someone prior to and other than creation. This being is God the Creator. Therefore, I am a created being aware of and seeking to know more of the Creator of all.”

Or should the starting point for Messianic Jewish epistemology and identity be the person of Christ? Should our epistemology be a slight adaptation of Newbigin's?

Starting from the created order or from the Person of Christ yields a universalistic and individualistic sense being. In addition, seeing ourselves primarily as related to Christ leaves us Christians indistinguishable from other Christians. But how do we get from there to our Jewish identity [after all, we ARE Messianic JEWS] and is the latter really important? My answer is “without doubt.”

A Jewish epistemology, of which Messianic Jewish epistemology is a subset, begins with this: We know ourselves to be the people whom God brought up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery/bondage [Exodus 20:2]. It is something of a neo-Cartesian frame of reference. We start from the fact that we know ourselves to be living Jews. Who are the Jews and how are we alive at this time? We are that people who were delivered from Egyptian bondage. And because this delivered people knows itself to be a self-evident truth, it knows therefore that God exists. In fact, Exodus 20:2 is the preeminent text upon which Jewish belief in God is founded: "I am ADONAI your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the abode of slavery.” The Exodus is central to Jewish self awareness and identity. Indeed, that eschatological events are of a cataclysmic and convulsive nature is measured by their relationship to the Exodus, so that Jeremiah can say: "Therefore," says ADONAI, "the day will come when people no longer swear, 'As ADONAI lives, who brought the people of Isra'el out of the land of Egypt,' but, 'As ADONAI lives, who brought the descendants of the house of Isra'el up from the land to the north' and from all the countries where I drove them. Then they will live in their own land” (Jeremiah 23:7-8).

Seeing ourselves as being part of the Exodus people engenders a more particularistic and communal sense of self than seeing ourselves as creatures or as Yeshua’s people. It brings us axiomatically into the realm of communal relationship and obligation, whereas the others postulated require no communal identity in themselves. (Agreed, seeing ourselves as the Exodus people, while foundational, is neither comprehensive nor final for Messianic Jews. We Messianic Jews, we Exodus people, are also creatures of God and Yeshua’s people).

The centrality of our identity as the people of the Exodus is one of the reasons why David Wolpe’s published remarks some years ago concerning the non-importance and historical improbability of the Exodus were so volatile and in need of refutation. If Israel is not the people whom God brought up out of the Land of Egypt, then not only are Israel’s foundational historical claims and identity demonstrably lies, even her faith in God is unseated and removed from the historical, existential, and communal to the realm of mere personal opinion and philosophical speculation--lovely for Greeks, certainly post-Enlightenment, but utterly foreign to a truly Jewish epistemology . If we did not come up out of Egyptian slavery, then God never delivered us from bondage, and therefore—how can we Jews know who we are and who God is? And what happens to Sinai where the Torah was given to establish our unique way of life if not by way of the Exodus? Sinai becomes nothing but a myth, like Mount Olympus. Without the Exodus, everything disappears in a cloud of flimsy rhetorical smoke, and as Jewiish deconstructionists philosopher Jacques Derrida opines, our faith claims become nothing but words about words.

The shift from an Exodus epistemology to any others seems to me titanic and dreadful. To so shift is to lose our Jewishness, to lose Sinai, to lose our covenant status, our sense of membership in that people whom God delivered from the Land of Egypt to give us his Torah and to bring us into the Land of promise. Is it not clear that to lose these things is ultimately, to lose ourselves? If we are not the Exodus people, then Jewish identity and heritage becomes nothing more than a collective bluff and brag.

Losing our identity as the Exodus people is also to lose a true sense of who Yeshua is, for He is, after all, the promised Saving King of this people: Shiloh—the one from Judah whom both Israel and the nations will obey: “The scepter will not pass from Y'hudah, nor the ruler's staff from between his legs, until he comes to whom [obedience] belongs; and it is he whom the peoples will obey” [Genesis 49:10], and, as we saw a few weeks ago, “a star [who] will step forth from Ya'akov, a scepter [who] will arise from Isra'el, to crush the corners of Mo'av and destroy all descendants of Shet" [Numbers 24:17]. Yeshua’s identity is clearly grounded in that of Israel. Without the people of Israel, Yeshua Himself has no identity. When the Jewish people disappears from view, so does He. And when we forget who we are, we disappear. Notice the connection between such forgetting and communal disintegration, and the connection between Jewish peoplehood, Torah, God and facticity of the Exodus.

11 "Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day. 19 And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish. 20 Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God. [Devarim/Deuteronomy 8:11-20].

Finally, we would do well to ponder the astounding insight of our tradition when it says, "'You are my witnesses,’ says Adonai, ‘and I am God’” (Isaiah 43:12). When you are my witnesses, I am God. And when you are not my witnesses, I am not God" (Midrash T’hillim 123:2). The existence of Israel and of God are intertwined. We exist because be brought us up out of the Land of Egypt. And because we exist, his identity and reputation are secured in the world.

R. Kendall Soulen reminds us that the term "God" is simply a monosyllable devoid of explicit meaning. The term must have a referent that gives it substance. For this reason, he reminds us that the good news of which the Bible speaks is this: "the God of ISRAEL has worked in Jesus Christ for the sake of all." The God of whom the Church speaks, of whom Judaism speaks, who sent Yeshua to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, whom we call the One True God, and whom Yeshua called "Father" is not simply God: He is explicitly and irreducibly [but of course, not exhaustively] "the God of Israel." Without Israel, God is reduced to a monosyllable devoid of content. Without his saving history with Israel we would know little about Him, and belief in "God" becomes little more than words.

The first commandment is first for a reason: to know that God exists. And we know the saving character of the One who exists because we exist—the Exodus people: "I am ADONAI your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the abode of slavery."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Lesslie Newbigin and Serving Our Limiting Calling

I am continuing to read and interact with the writings of brilliant missiologist Lesslie Newbigin, one of those scholars whose expertise is evident in the pristine clarity of every page of his writing which makes transparent even the most opaque subject matter. In chapter nine of his excellent “The Open Secret” he critiques the theories of Donald Anderson McGavran, the founder of the discipline of Church Growth Theory and the also founder of the School of World Mission and Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary. I knew McGavran, and although about five feet four in height, he was a giant. McGavran’s studies concern what factors account for congregations of Yeshua-believers multiplying in some contexts, but not in others.

Of course McGavran and Newbigin both speak within the compass of the Christian church, so their language comes across a goyishe [foreign] to Jews. Nevertheless there is much to be learned here. So read on, despite the discordant linguistic frame of reference.

Newbigin readily acknowledges that the mission culture is remiss in not putting the liberating gospel but rather a conformity to missionary culture or other demands at the center of its concerns. But it his next point that gives rise to this posting:

[McGavran] is right in insisting that the missionary has a specific task—not the whole task of evangelism nurture, prophetic witness, and action for justice and compassion, but the more limited task of ‘discipling.’ This is not to deny that the others named and many more must be included in any full statement of the church’s calling; it is only to insist that this is true within the broader spectrum and more limited calling. The missionary is to ‘disciple the nations.’ The other things must not be left undone, but they must not deflect the missionary from the essential thing to which he or she is called—to bring ‘the nations’ into allegiance to Jesus Christ [Newbigin, Lesslie. "The Open Secret. An Introduction to the Theology of Mission." Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995:127-128].

This is crucial from a Messianic Jewish viewpoint. By analogy to Newbigin’s thinking here, we ought to be asking ourselves “As the Remnant of Israel living in a time of eschatological transition, what is the more ‘limited calling’ which ought to influence how we rank other priorities?”

With the changing of the times, priorities shift—the priorities of the Remnant of Israel should be shifting now toward the renewal of wider Israel, as the Greater Commission, also known as the Fullness of Israel, moves front and center in the program of God’s dealings. And that renewal will include a return to the Land, spiritual renewal of the Jewish people, a return to a revivified covenant faithfulness through the largely unanticipated work of Yeshua the Messiah and the Ruach HaKodesh.

When one considers the various obligations falling to the Church from among the nations and the Remnant of Israel, a number of obligations become apparent: the obligation of the earliest disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations beginning at Jerusalem; the obligation of the Church to reciprocally be concerned with the well-being of the Jewish people [that they might "now" receive mercy - Romans 11]; the eschatological obligation of the Remnant of Israel to its limiting missiological calling to be agents of repentance, return and renewal of wider Israel; the eschatological obligation of the Remnant of Israel to assist the Church in its fulfillment of the Great Commission, while remembering that this is not the primary responsibility of the Remnant at this time; the eschatological obligation of the Church to assist the Remnant of Israel in its fulfillment of its own eschatological calling with reference to the Jewish people..

I am borrowing Newbigin’s language and modifying it slightly. Rather than speaking of a limited calling, I would speak of a limiting calling, what Stephen Covey termed one’s circle of influence [the areas where one can affect change] as opposed to one’s circle of interest [the things that ring our chimes]. In his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Covey suggested that our circle of interest is always larger than our circle of influence, a small circle concentric with the former. Indeed, I am speaking of limiting callings (plural), those of the Church and of the Remnant of Israel, callings which are shifting in these days of eschatological change. These limited callings are, or should be, our respective circles of influence, those areas where we can, and are callled to, affect change.

This ties in a discussion I had with my good friend Mark Kinzer where he pointed out how life must be lived with an awareness that certain priorities trump other good and right priorities. It is inevitable that one must with regret state that one cannot do good and right priority B because of a prior or overriding commitment to priority A. This dyanamic is evident in Scripture, as for example, in Nehemiah 6:3; and Mark 1:29-39; Cf. Lk 5:31-44.

In view of who we are as the Remnant of Israel, and in view of the times in which we are living, what is the limiting calling of the Messianic Jewish Remnant? And in view of our filial relationship with the Church, how ought we to assist them in their limiting calling? And in view of the times of transition in which we are living, when God appears to be bringing the people of Israel to the forefront of his dealings, with the related shift from the Great Commission to the Greater Commission, how ought our respective callings to be redrawn or reconceived?

Yes, these are big things to think about, and they will make our thinkers hurt. But read Romans eleven slowly a couple of times, reread this posting, and think away! However, be aware that both change and shifting priorities make demands upon us which we are inclined to resist in the nature of the case. This is the principle of homeostasis whereby organisms tend to maintain the status quo and resist substantive change. Sometimes resistance to change is good--when the changes are inappropriate. But sometimes, resistance to change is simply reflexive.

Get your thinkers out.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Defining a Theological Swear Word - Legalism

Roaming the web recently, as I am wont to do, I ran across an article by one Marshall Beeber in which he attacks certain trends in the Messianic Movement and passionately advocates a return to older paradigms, which he deems to be the God-honoring old paths from which we never should have strayed. I could spend a few days working on reponses to the red herrings Mr. Beeber evokes in his comments, but for today I want to concentrate on one: his frequent evocation of the term "legalistic" or "legalism." This is what I term a "theolgical swear word," by which I mean an alarmist term, seldom if ever defined, which is used for effect. The effect is usually to label a position or person or group of persons in such a manner as to warn others away.

"Legalism" is one of the more common terms being used in this fashion by certain persons in the Messianic Jewish Movement and in the Jewish Missions Movement. I think it is past time the term was defined, and its misuse exposed.

In his article, "Dismantling Legalism In the Messianic Jewish Movement Today, found on-line 7/14/06 at http://www.messianic-literary.com/dismantle.htm, Mr. Beeber says the following:

The greatest threat to the Messianic Jewish (Hebrew Christian) Movement in the 21st Century is the de-spiritualization of it's ranks by legalism in the form of mandatory Torah observance. I believe the reason why the "gospel of grace" was overtaken by "Torah observant legalism", is due to a spirit of unbiblical compromise and conformation to a false spirit of religiosity among Messianic Jewish leaders. To make the situation worse, grace oriented Messianic Jewish (Hebrew Christians) leaders have themselves been polarized by various secondary issues. To reverse the stemming tide of legalism before the entire movement is lost, we must put aside our differences and work together for the common goal of the gospel.

. . . . Let me take some time to explain why legalism in the form of strict Torah Observance has successfully overtaken the correct doctrine of Grace and how Grace oriented Messianic Judaism can regain the hearts and minds of believers.

. . . Today almost all dissenting teachers have been ostracized from much of the movement. Those that remain but disagree have learned a certain "politically correct" posture to take regarding legalism and have therefore been neutralized. Both the UMJC and MJA are now supportive of [this view]. . . . It looks like the battle against legalism is being lost! But the legalist leaders have not yet faced the repercussion of their folly , nor the full opposition of their Grace oriented Messianic Jewish and supportive Christian brethren. . . .

The preceding are excerpts from Mr. Beeber's article. I invite you to read the original as well as these excerpts and note how many times he uses the term "legalist" or "legalism" without defining either, and the strongly perjorative and polemical manner in which he uses the terms. This is what I mean by theological swearing.

How shall we respond to this? Well, many ways. There are a number of red herrings, half-truths and mischaracterizations in this document. But for today, let’s settle for just one—a better definition of “legalism.’

I like the one given by Charles Caldwell Ryrie, a well-known Christian theologian of a camp [Dispensationalism] with which Marshall Beeber is usually in full agreement:

Legalism may be defined as a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self. The code is whatever objective standard is applicable to the time; the motive is to exalt self and gain merit rather than to glorify God because of what He has done, and the power is the flesh, not the Holy Spirit. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that having to do something is not legalism, but the wrong attitude is ----- Israelites had to bring their sacrifices, otherwise they would have suffered certain penalties. It was the attitude toward doing what they had to do that determined whether or not their action was legalistic ------ Having to conform to a law is not of itself legalism (Charles Ryrie, "The Grace of God" 1963: 117-118).

“Legalism” is a word commonly thrown around by people seeking to either avoid or discredit Torah observance. It is not usually defined, and is most often used as a accusatory term stigmatizing others while, in fact, exalting oneself as more faithful than they to the core of New Covenant truth. I believe that Ryrie’s approach is most helpful in clarifying the entire issue.

To put it in my own words, “Legalism is an attitude which seeks to leverage God through human performance, often serving as a basis for claiming or feeling oneself superior to others.”

Saying that God requires certain kinds of conduct from us, including Torah commandment-keeping is not legalism. It is
covenant-obedience in the context of seeking to honor God. It only becomes legalism when it leads to feeling proud, superior, or entitled, when it is used as an occasion for dominating others, and when it obscures the fact that confidence with God is, was and always will be grounded on His grace and mercy, not our own achievement.

In our time, a sizeable group of Messianic Jews are advocating and attempting a return to Torah observance. They do not require others to accept their views, nor do they claim spiritually superior status because these views are theirs. We just happen to think that the commandments of God retain a mandatory character. Even if we are wrong in this, which I doubt, the word is out courtesy of Dr. Ryrie: Such views do not make us legalists. While some no doubt misuse the terms "legalism" and "legalists" without polemical intent, I believe it is time the careless and self-serving polemical misuse of this theological swear word was exposed and retired, and that the right use of the term became the norm.

What do you think?

Friday, July 14, 2006

On Hearing God's Voice - Part One

In response to an earlier posting, someone asked for some instruction on "hearing from God." This is the first of two or perhaps three postings on the matter. I hope it helps.

The first thing that needs saying is that hearing God is not about hearing God. It is not a stunt, a skill, a gift, a badge of spiritual advancement, or an ability. Hearing God does not necessily mean that you will "hear" something audibly [I never have, although I have heard from God].

Hearing God has a context which is the pursuit and cultivation of intimacy with the Holy One. What we by "hearing God/from God" is that he causes us to know what he wants us to know, to do what he wants us to do, to be where he wants us to be within the greater context of growing in intimate relationship with Him and being agents of His purposes in the world.

Again, it is not a stunt, not a gift, and by no means a merit badge. It is a byproduct of intimate relationship. Therefore, above all, one should cultivate intimacy with God through prayer, study of Scripture and holy writings, and persistent service to His will.

I didn’t learn to hear from God until I was in desperate life crisis—I grew in discerning His voice when I was in a situation where there was simply no alternative. And during that time of crisis I became aware that for twenty years or so, intimacy with God had ceased being central in my life. In his place i put my relationship with my religious circles, the meeting of quotas, "the Lord's work." I was so preoccupied with the work of the Lord that I neglected the Lord of the work. And at that time, I repented of this. And, to be honest, it is a repentance I need to repeat from time to time.

But I did hear from God at that time--I knew because I knew because I knew that I needed to seek out a certain friend I had seen once in twelve years. Seeking him out, I discovered that he and his wife had been praying for me for about a year on the very issues about which I was coming to them! I then knew two things: I had heard from God and they had too, for it was no accident that of all the people I knew, I had sensed that I needed to seek out these friends. At that point, I became open to learning more about the subject of hearing from God, actually voraciously hungry to learn more. I talked to people about their own experiences in this realm, I read widely. The best book on the subject, in my view, is "Hearing God" by Dallas Willard. Most sane, balanced, helpful and challenging. Here is a quote from that fine book.

“If we are really to understand the Bible record, we must enter into our study of it on the assumption that the experiences recorded there are basically of the same type as ours would have been if we had been there. . . .Unless this comes home to us, the things that happened to the people in the Bible will remain unreal to us. We will not genuinely be able to believe the Bible or find its contents to be real, because it will have no experiential substance for us” [Hearing God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999:35].

The man certainly has a point.

What Willard is touching upon is one of the dirty little secrets of many who claim to be sound believers in Yeshua, Bible-believers. Many of us are Bible Deists. We are experts on what the Bible says, but are either categorically convinced that none of its dynamics are accessible to us, reserved for other people and other times. When reading the Bible, we subconsciously say "That was then, now is now, that was them and I not them." Frankly, we generally expect little from God. We live out the assumption that nothing that happened in the Bible can happen in our lives. In this manner, the Bible becomes meaningless, the Bible irrelevant to our lives, and our faith nothing more than words about words.

Charles Kraft reminds us that the Bible is a case book, a demonstration of what happens in human life and experience when we encounter the Living God. If that is not true, then Bible studies and blog entries like this one are nothing more than a religious philosophy class. Yawn.

As I struggled with the issue of how one hears from God, I eventually came to see that God is the Great Communicator, an even greater communicator than Ronald Reagan. And I learned to stop sweating it because I realized that God has no problem making himself understood when He wants to. If there is something he wants me to know, he’ll be able to do so. I took the onus off of myself as the one worrying about my ability to detect God’s communications, and I put the onus on God as the Great Communicator. I left Him with the task of communicating clearly and effectively. At that point, both God and I breathed a sigh of relief.

In this blog entry, I want to examine just some of the many ways God speaks—that is, just how he gets us to know what he wants us to know, to be where he wants us to be, and to say or do what he wants us to say or do within the context of growing intimacy with Him and partnership in HIs purposes. I am going to be taking the first chapters of the Gospel of Luke as my jumping off point.

1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Written accounts - God speaks to us through Scripture preeminently and authoritatively, but also through other books. Some of the most seminal thoughts in my life have come through books I have read. What about you? And God speaks to us in music that people write as well—artistic products, written, graphic, musical. Through such means God speaks.

Such "speaking" is more than simply the exchange of information. Rather, as you read the words, sometimes you will sense that you are being addressed, and/or you will be struck by the startling relevance of the passage in question to the present condition and issues of your life. Such times are not as uncommon as one might imagine.

Especially when we study Scripture, which should be a regular habit of life, we ought to do so with a conscious plea to God to address us in the matters which we study. Sometimes, subtly but inerringly, He guides us to where we ought to be reading. And one of the ways we know we have been guided, is the sense of being addressed that we have as we read these passages which turn out to be highly relevant to where we are in our life at that time.

Remember, Luke thought he was writing a letter, not Scripture, and Theopohilus thought he was receiving a letter. God can speak to us or speak through us in letters, and in books and articles as well---those that we read, and those that we write.

In that passage Luke refers to the fact that his reader(s) had been "instructed." Another way we hear from God is through those whom he has gifted and called to teach us--through their words heard or read.

Investigation - We learn by digging. To all the scholars and writers reading this, I have good news: God speaks to us in our research, and through our research, God speaks to others! That is how it was for Luke, and that is what God wants to say to you today!

In all these ways and more God gets us knowing what he wants, going where he wants, and doing what he wants in the world so that we become more like Yeshua, growing in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God

5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Scripture and tradition.
Tradition is the community’s discussion across time of “just how are we going to make this work. . .what is our obedience to God supposed to look like?”

We ought not to despise tradition. After all, tradition is simply yesterday’s “now” winnowed by the wisdom of the community across time. And if we believe we can learn from God in the now, we can learn from the approved “nows” of the tradition.

8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.

Tradition again—custom. Very unusual means—in this case, the drawing of lots. God can and does use extraordinary means to speak with us. But we must not forget that these means are extraordinary, and ought not to be relied upon. We would do well to depend upon more ordinary means--the voice of tradition, Scripture, dependable counsel within the community of God's people, a growing sense of conviction that God is "saying something to us," and sanctified common sense. The more factors like these line up with each other, the more certain we can be that we are not self-deceived.

"10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Tradition again - the time of the incense offering. And something more astounding: an Angelic visitation and the out and out miraculous. The same was to be true for Elizabeth and Mary.

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” 21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Here Elizabeth speaks prophetic words to Mary. Sometimes God guides us through prophetic words/words from someone else, often people who do not know that they are being God’s messengers at that very time. I am not speaking of those people who always somehow need to tell you what God has shown them about you. There are such people, but as a rule of thumb, I tend to be leery of them to the extent that their "prophetic gift" makes them feel special about themselves. I am leery of people whose "ministry" to me is driven by an ego need of their own.

Nevertheless, there are times when God speaks to you along with the words someone is speaking to you. They are just speaking what they sense, what they think, or whatever. But the Holy Spirit is adding His "Amen." Sometimes when such things happen, you sense that something is up. Sometimes, what the person says to you perfectly aligns with something you have "heard" from another source unknown to them. This is what is termed "double confirmation."

One day a woman in my congregation, a woman of prayer, came to me and said that God had told her something for me, and that, unusually, He even told her precisely what words to say to me. She felt herself "assigned" to give me these words in writing. Here they are: "I have put a Spirit of excellence in you." What I did at that point is, I tucked this away in my heart and mind to ponder and evaluate.

About two weeks later, I was in the home of some fellow students at Fuller Seminary where I was doing a Master's Degree at that time. The host was a chaplain to the students. Toward the end of the evening, he offered prayer for us. At that time he said, "The Lord seems to be saying that he has put a spirit of excellence in you."

Never before and never since have I heard these words spoken to me or the phrase "a spirit of excellence" used in any other connection.. The second person did not know the first person, and both of them were from entirely different contexts in my life. But the words were identical in a manner which confirmed that God was saying something to me through these people. And as I said, unlike this case, often the people who are speaking God's words to you are just speaking their own hearts and minds and are unaware that they are being God's agents. It is obvious as well that both of these people had also heard from God.

More later.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

How Shall We Respond to Balaam's Prophecies?

(The following is a sermon/lesson presented at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA, on Shabbat Chukkat-Balak, July 8, 2006. It surveys the prophecies of Balaam, the context of the Haftarah of the day, and a related New Covenant reading, asking what our response should be to such profound truths and events).

In today's Torah reading we find the story of the Prophet Balaam, a pagan prophet with a true prophetic gift. The King of Moab, Balak, hired him to come and curse Israel. In language clearly reminiscent of the opening chapters of Exodus, Balak is alarmed at the multiplication of this foreign people, the Jews, who hae spread out across his land. He feels sure they will rise up to do him harm, unless he deals with them first.

This he attempts to do by hiring Balaam to curse Israel, because Balak has heard, "He whom you bless is blessed and whoever you curse is cursed. Balaam warns Balak's messengers that, no matter how much he is to be paid by a desperate Balak, he can only say the words that Hashem puts in his mouth.

On the way to the rendezvous, Balaam's donkey stops in its tracks three times, finally pressing Balaam's leg against the wall of a vineyard. When Balaam beats the donkey, God "opens the donkey's mouth" [gives him the power of speech], in a rather comical interchange that results in Balaam recognizing that the Angel of the LORD is barring his way. As a result the message is made clearer than ever to Balaam that he must only speak the words that ADONAI puts in his mouth,

Why this unique and strange story? In part it is a set up for the grand prophecies that are to follow, prophecies about Israel that map out in broad strokes the destiny and majesty of God's chosen nation. In effect the Scripture is telling us that the God who could speak truth through the mouth of a donkey, can also speak true prophecy about His chosen people through the mouth of a pagan prophet who will later prove to be morally corrupt.

The entire episode sets us up to recognize that what we are about to hear is nothing less and nothing other than the Word of the LORD about Israel.

Balaam gives four prophetic words about Israel, and here we will briefly review each in turn.

23:5 Then ADONAI put a word in Bil'am's mouth and said, "Go on back to Balak, and speak as I tell you." 6 He went back to him, and there, standing by his burnt offering, he with all the princes of Mo'av, 7 he made his pronouncement: "Balak, the king of Mo'av, brings me from Aram, from the eastern hills, saying, 'Come, curse Ya'akov for me; come and denounce Isra'el.' 8 How am I to curse those whom God has not cursed? How am I to denounce those whom ADONAI has not denounced? " 9 "From the top of the rocks I see them, from the hills I behold them yes, a people that will dwell alone and not think itself one of the nations. 10 "Who has counted the dust of Ya'akov or numbered the ashes of Isra'el? May I die as the righteous die! May my end be like theirs!"

Here we see Israel as a unique people [who shall not be numbered with the nations], a blessed people with a holy destiny. A people whom God has not cursed, but blessed.

23:18 Then Bil'am made his pronouncement: "Get up, Balak, and listen! Turn your ears to me, son of Tzippor! 19 "God is not a human who lies or a mortal who changes his mind. When he says something, he will do it; when he makes a promise, he will fulfill it. 20 Look, I am ordered to bless; when he blesses, I can't reverse it. 21 "No one has seen guilt in Ya'akov, or perceived perversity in Isra'el; ADONAI their God is with them and acclaimed as king among them. 22 "God, who brought them out of Egypt, gives them the strength of a wild ox; 23 thus one can't put a spell on Ya'akov, no magic will work against Isra'el. It can now be said of Ya'akov and Isra'el, 'What is this that God has done?!' 24 "Here is a people rising up like a lioness; like a lion he rears himself up -he will not lie down till he eats up the prey and drinks the blood of the slain."

Here we see Israel as the heirs to God’s promises, a people strengthened by God, mighty and formidable, protected from occultic power.

24:3Then the Spirit of God came upon him, 3 and he made his pronouncement: "This is the speech of Bil'am, son of B'or; the speech of the man whose eyes have been opened; 4 the speech of him who hears God's words; who sees what Shaddai sees, who has fallen, yet has open eyes: 5 "How lovely are your tents, Ya'akov; your encampments, Isra'el! 6 They spread out like valleys, like gardens by the riverside, like succulent aloes planted by ADONAI, like cedar trees next to the water. 7 "Water will flow from their branches, their seed will have water aplenty. Their king will be higher than Agag and his kingdom lifted high. 8 God, who brought them out of Egypt, gives them the strength of a wild ox. They will devour the nations opposing them, break their bones, pierce them with their arrows. 9 When they lie down they crouch like a lion, or like a lioness - who dares to rouse it? Blessed be all who bless you! Cursed be all who curse you!"

Here again, Israel is mighty, strong, formidable against its foes. But in addition, it is fruitful, blessed and a blessing to all who bless them, while all who seek to curse them will themselves be cursed.

24:15 "This is the speech of Bil'am, son of B'or; the speech of the man whose eyes have been opened; 16 the speech of him who hears God's words; who knows what 'Elyon knows, who sees what Shaddai sees, who has fallen, yet has open eyes: 17 "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not soon -a star will step forth from Ya'akov, a scepter will arise from Isra'el, to crush the corners of Mo'av and destroy all descendants of Shet. 18 His enemies will be his possessions -Edom and Se'ir, possessions. Isra'el will do valiantly, 19 From Ya'akov will come someone who will rule, and he will destroy what is left of the city." 20 He saw 'Amalek and made this pronouncement: "First among nations was 'Amalek, but destruction will be its end." 21 He saw the Keini and made this pronouncement: "Though your dwelling is firm, your nest set on rock, 22 Kayin will be wasted while captive to Ashur." 23 Finally, he made this pronouncement: "Oh no! Who can live when God does this? 24 But ships will come from the coast of Kittim to subdue Ashur and subdue 'Ever, but they too will come to destruction." 25 Then Bil'am got up, left and returned to his home; and Balak too went his way.

Here we see the consummating means of God’s purposes for Israel, the Messiah. He will be Israel’s protector and vindicator against her enemies. The nations that plundered Israel will themselves be plundered, and Israel protected by the might of God and the instrumentality of His Messiah. And we see this portrait mirrored in our Haftarah and in our New Covenant reading as well.

In the Haftarah we read more information about this coming King. . . .

Micah 5:6 They will shepherd the land of Ashur with the sword, the land of Nimrod at its gates; and he will rescue us from Ashur when he invades our land, when he overruns our borders.

7 Then the remnant of Ya'akov, surrounded by many peoples, will be like dew from ADONAI, like showers on the grass, which doesn't wait for a man or expect anything from mortals. 8 The remnant of Ya'akov among the nations, surrounded by many peoples, will be like a lion among forest animals, like a young lion among flocks of sheep - if it passes through, tramples and tears to pieces, there is no one to rescue them. 9 Your hand will be raised over your enemies; all your adversaries will be destroyed. 10 "When that day comes," says ADONAI, "I will cut off your horses from among you and destroy your chariots. 11 I will cut off the cities of your land and lay waste your strongholds. 12 I will cut off sorceries from your land; you will no longer have soothsayers. 13 I will cut off your carved images and standing-stones from among you; no longer will you worship what your own hands have made. 14 I will pull up your sacred poles from among you and destroy your enemies. 15 I will wreak vengeance in anger and fury on the nations, because they would not listen."

Micah 6:1 So listen now to what ADONAI says: "Stand up and state your case to the mountains, let the hills hear what you have to say." 2 Listen, mountains, to ADONAI's case; also you enduring rocks that support the earth! ADONAI has a case against his people; he wants to argue it out with Isra'el: 3 "My people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! 4 I brought you up from the land of Egypt. I redeemed you from a life of slavery. I sent Moshe, Aharon and Miryam to lead you. 5 My people, just remember what Balak the king of Mo'av had planned, what Bil'am the son of B'or answered him, [and what happened] between Sheetim and Gilgal - so that you will understand the saving deeds of ADONAI."

6 "With what can I come before ADONAI to bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with burnt offerings? with calves in their first year? 7 Would ADONAI take delight in thousands of rams with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Could I give my firstborn to pay for my crimes, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" 8 Human being, you have already been told what is good, what ADONAI demands of you - no more than to act justly, love grace and walk in purity with your God.

Again we read of the seed of Jacob, here, ”the remnant of Jacob,” as being victor over her enemies and like a lion one dares not rouse up. We also read here of the purification of the descendants of Jacob from all their idolatry and spiritual corruption. We read a synopsis of the saving acts of God in bringing Israel out of Egypt, and of His determination to bless Israel despite her own stumblings, In the end, what the LORD requires of us is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

And just a few verses before this, we read of the instrumentality of all this blessing, the Messiah, of whom it is written Micah 5:2 But you, Beit-Lechem near Efrat, so small among the clans of Y'hudah, out of you will come forth to me the future ruler of Isra'el, whose origins are far in the past, back in ancient times.” This one, the called the Beth-Lachmi, the Bethlehemite in our ancient prayer “L’cha Dodi,” is the one through whom these culminating blessings come over Israel.

In the Newer Covenant reading we read of the fulfillment of all this expectation, in the coming of Yeshua the Messiah [Luke 1:26-56]. Here we read of Yeshua that he is the ultimate Davidic King who will rule over the house of Ya’akov forever. He is to be born of the Holy Spirit

Miryam’s response is to proclaim the greatness of God in a poem, something still done in the Middle East when a hero is being praised. Not to make a comparison here [l’havdil] but when Abu Musab al-Zarkawi was killed in a recent raid in Iraq, Osama bin Laden praised him on a tape released to the media. This habit of praising heroes in poetry and song is ancient in the Middle East. Here is what Miryam says about the God of Israel, her hero:

46 . . . "My soul magnifies ADONAI; 47 and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, 48 who has taken notice of his servant-girl in her humble position. For -- imagine it! -- from now on, all generations will call me blessed! 49 "The Mighty One has done great things for me! Indeed, his name is holy; 50 and in every generation he has mercy on those who fear him. 51 "He has performed mighty deeds with his arm, routed the secretly proud, 52 brought down rulers from their thrones, raised up the humble, 53 filled the hungry with good things, but sent the rich away empty. 54 "He has taken the part of his servant Isra'el, mindful of the mercy 55 which he promised to our fathers, to Avraham and his seed forever."

What ought to be our proper response to these magnificent hero passages in the prophecies of Balaam, in the prophet Micah, and in Luke? And what does this have to do with why we gather here around this shulchan, before this Ark?

The answer is that we are here to praise the One Supreme God, who does such mighty works, who shows such faithfulness to the descendants of Jacob. We are here because such a God deserves our worship. And if we are spiritually healthy and aware of what our faith is supposed to be about, we will sense and give vent to a strong impulse to worship Him—offering our lives as living sacrifices, mingled with our praises of Him. When we gather together in this place, we will do so to offer him the sacrifice of prayer as the unified people of God, the beneficiaries of His mighty works.

If we don’t do this there is only one reason: we just don’t get it. We do not rightly comprehend who we are, who God is, and what He has done. We think we know, but we do not.

The proof of this is the portraits of heavenly worship we find in the Bible. Why is it that no one in the heavenly realm has difficulty worshipping God, why is it that it is both rich and poor, small and great, who stand in worship before the throne? It is because they all get it—they all see God for who He is, they understand the majesty of His works, they marvel at His covenant faithfulness, and as a result, the only thing they can do, the only thing they want to do is give Him the honor, glory, power and praise, the glory due His Name.

To rightly respond to God, we must have corporate worship—communal worship—and not just personal worship. We must have the gathered people of God singing the praises of our Holy hero. And again, it is most proper that we do this together, and publicly.

For this reason, Psalm 35:18 says this: “I will give you thanks in the great assembly, I will give you praise among huge crowds of people.” And Psalm 40:10 puts it this way: “I did not hide your righteousness in my heart but declared your faithfulness and salvation; I did not conceal your grace and truth from the great assembly." Psalm 107:32 says this: “Let them extol him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the leaders' council.” Hebrews 2:11-12, quotes from Psalm 35:18, reminding us that Yeshua Himself stands amidst his assembled people praising His Father: “11 For both Yeshua, who sets people apart for God, and the ones being set apart have a common origin - this is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers 12 when he says, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise." When we gather, we join with Yeshua through the Holy Spirit in the praise of the Father and His mighty works.

I never tire of telling you how we have distorted our relationship with God because we have so individualized it. We speak of Yeshua being “our personal Savior.” To me it sounds like someone speaking of their “personal trainer.” Yeshua is not your personal Savior—he is the covenant keeping Son of David in whom all of God’s promises to all of God’s people are Yea and Amen. We praise Him and His Father for the mercy shown to all.

Jews remember that God made his covenants and kept and is keeping His promises to a people—not just to you or to me or someone else, but to a people. And so it is the people gathered who ought to offer Him praise. Our tradition provides us the vehicle whereby we can offer Him that praise with one voice, even as the Apostle Paul says “5 And may God, the source of encouragement and patience, give you the same attitude among yourselves as the Messiah Yeshua had, 6 so that with one accord and with one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah” [Romans 15:16].

We employ the liturgy so that we might with one voice glorify the God who created, called, and covenanted with Israel, joining our voices not only with one another, but also with others throughout the world and throughout time. This is our privilege, our calling, and our role as a holy nation and a Kingdom of Priests.

Such worship is not a chore, nor simply a responsibility to be added to our To Do lists. Worship is a sign of awareness and an evidence of life—a sign that we not only understand and believe who God is and what He has done, but that we are alive to the Spirit of God.

And when we do not have this impulse to worship, we either do not know what our faith is about, or we are unresponsive to the motions of the Spirit. A.J. Heschel reminds us, “This is why in Jewish liturgy, praise rather than petition ranks foremost. It is the more profound form, for it involves not so much the sense of one's own dependence and privation as the sense of God’s majesty and glory.”

Yeshua told the woman at the well what God wants. Ultimately He is not seeking believers, or even workers for the harvest, although He does seek these as well. Above all else, the Father is seeking worshippers, And contrary to those people who imagine that Jewish worship is secondary or even suspect, Yeshua said this: “We worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews.”

In worship, “Praise is our first response. Aflame with inability to say what His presence means, we can only sing, we can only utter words of adoration" [Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “Prayer: Now Before Whom You Stand.” In Rothschild, Fritz A., ed. Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997:213].

James Kugel reminds us, “Prayer, you see, is what we offer up to God, and our offering, like the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple, should be perfect. This is another reason why you should concentrate on learning the prayers by heart” [Kugel, James. On Being A Jew. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1990:103].

Our prayers are our priestly offering to God. Yes, we come in Yeshua’s Name, but what do we bring with us? Our sins? Yes, we want forgiveness. But what gifts do we bring to the Holy One? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: Through him, therefore, let us offer God a sacrifice of praise continually. For this is the natural product of lips that acknowledge his name [Hebrews 13:15].

We have meditated today on the astounding goodness of God to the descendants of Jacob. As we turn now to offer Him the sacrifice of praise, it would be helpful to be instructed by Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a master of prayer. Here is what He has to teach us today about how the liturgy helps us in our priestly ministry of praise of God.

“We have to distinguish between two main types of prayer: prayer as an act of expression and prayer as an act of empathy.

The first type comes to pass when we feel the urge to set forth before God a personal concern. Here the concern, even the mood and the desire to pray come first; the word follows. It is the urge to pray that leads to the act of praying.
While it is true that the prayer of expression is a common and universal phenomenon, it is inaccurate to assume, as most people do, that prayer occurs primarily as an act of expression. The fact is that the more common type of prayer is an act of empathy. There need be no prayerful mood in us when we begin to pray. It is through our reading and feeling the words of the prayers, through the imaginative projection of our consciousness into the meaning of the words, and through empathy with the ideas with which the words are pregnant, that this type of prayer comes to pass. Here the word comes first, the feeling follows.

In the prayer of empathy, we begin by turning to the words of the liturgy. At first, the words and their meanings seem to lie beyond the horizon of the mind. . . . Gradually, going out to meet its meaning, we rise to the greatness of prayer. On the way to the word, on its slopes and ridges, prayer matures—we purify ourselves into beings who pray [Heschel, Abraham Joshua, “Prayer: Expression and Empathy.” In Rothschild, Fritz A., ed. Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997:203-204],

I asked a question at the start of today’s deliberations: How shall we respond to Balaam’s prophecies? The answer to that question is that the only right response, the only response that is sensitive to the movings of the Spirit and in harmony with Yeshua, the only response in keeping with our identity as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation is that we, the assembled seed of Jacob, ought to offer Him our sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that acknowledge who He is and what He has done.

This is our privilege, our joy, and our place in the world.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Responding to a Comment/Question on "How To Pray"

There are far better people to teach you how to pray, believe me, but I will briefly outline some of the most basic lessons I have been learning along the way. I hope this helps some of you.

There are various modalities of prayer. The giftedness set, temperament, life situation, and maturation stage for each individual will suit him or her to one or more of those modalities at various times and seasons of their life. But it is my conviction that there is much to be gained by learning to become a “multi-style pray-er,” rather than relying upon one modality exclusively.

The wisdom of multi-style praying is attested to in both Testaments, and in both Jewish and Christian sources. For example, the great scholar Moshe Greenberg succinctly and cogently speaks of Older Testamental prayer in his “Biblical Prose Prayer: As a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1983.” Among his statements is the following:

"These three levels of praying were coeval, and one and the same biblical character is attested as praying on more than one of them. Hannah is said to have extemporized a long prayer on one occasion (1 Sam. 1:12), and on another, she recites a thanksgiving psalm (1 Sam. 2:1–10). Samson expostulates formlessly on one occasion (Judg. 15:18), but later he carefully follows a conventional petitionary pattern (Judg. 16:28). One of David's prayers is a one-line exclamation (2 Sam. 15:31), but he also extemporizes patterned petitions, confessions, and benedictions; furthermore, he is famous for composing highly stylized poems and psalms. King Hezekiah, fallen sick, extemporizes a brief prose prayer of petition; healed, he dedicates a written psalm (miktab ) of thanksgiving to God (Isa. 38:2 f., 9–20). Nothing warrants setting up an evolution, starting at either end of this ladder of prayer. All three levels were available throughout the period of biblical literature, and narrators might choose to place their characters on any level according to circumstances. Not only can anyone pray in the Bible, but anyone may pray on any level of prayer—though to be sure, only experts can compose prayers of the highest technical and ideational level (psalms) [Moshe Greenberg, Biblical Prose Prayer, c. 1983:46]."

Paul bears witness to the reality of multi-style praying more than once. In Ephesians 6:17-18 he says this: “17 And take the helmet of deliverance; along with the sword given by the Spirit, that is, the Word of God; 18 as you pray at all times, with all kinds of prayers and requests, in the Spirit, vigilantly and persistently, for all God's people.” He speaks of praying “with all kinds of prayers and requests.”

I have attempted in recent postings to say something about the how’s and why’s of prayer. But let me here add some general advice which might be helpful for some. My focus will be on personal, private prayer.

First, have a place where you habitually pray—a place that becomes resonant and weighty with accumulated memories and experiences. It should be a place conducive to prayer—quiet, free from distractions both visual and otherwise. You might make the place "special" by how it is decorated, by using incense, or candles, or other means of marking the place and time as "holy space." It should be a place you can return to again and again.

Second, consistently orient yourself to the appropriate purpose of prayer. The purpose should be the same as it was for Yeshua, to grow in intimacy with God, and in knowledge and conformity to his character, his ways, and his purposes, that He might be increasingly and consistently glorified in your life. Of Yeshua it was said, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise.” And Paul put it this way, “When the Messiah was executed on the stake as a criminal, I was too; so that my proud ego no longer lives. But the Messiah lives in me, and the life I now live in my body I live by the same trusting faithfulness that the Son of God had, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20].

Third, you will need a pattern for your prayers. A good pattern is the book of Psalms. I find that reading the psalms aloud, and, as the words either express your life situation or convey the sentiments of your own heart, comment upon them in your own words. Let the words of the psalms become grist for your mill . . .fuel for your prayers.

Another pattern is of course the siddur, an extraordinary resource for Jewish prayer. But this warrants a longer treatment than I will give at this time. But for now, let it suffice to say that having such a pattern for prayer "primes the pump" for us and leads us into the life of prayer.

Also let the holy words of the Psalms and of the siddur call you forth to holy thoughts and senstivities. The words of the Psalms, of the siddur, or other holy books you might use, do not merely express what you want to say--they say things you would not have otherwise said but which speak to you from the depths of the Tradition and call you forth to higher ground and a higher vision of God. This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel, of Blessed Memory, termed "the prayer of empathy," where the words of the prayers [as in the Psalms or the siddur] come first and we join our hearts to them, as opposed to the prayer of expression, which finds its genesis in our need to give expression to something welling up in our hearts.

Fourth, the premise of prayer should be our access through the sacrifice and high priestly work of Yeshua our Messiah. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians, in Yeshua “we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him." It is interesting that the wider Jewish community also comes in prayer on a basis, a premise--we pray in on the basis of Hashem's promises to the Patriarchs, a very scriptural basis of prayer by the way. Moses prays on this basis atop Sinai when he pleads for God's mercy toward Israel after the incident of the Golden Calf, and Paul speaks of Israel being "beloved for the sake of the patriarchs" [Romans 11:28].

Fifth, there is the matter of posture. It is hard to slouch and have an upright spirit. I am not saying that one must fold one’s hands, kneel, or raise one’s hands when praying. It is not a question of “must.” But one ought to realize that prayer is not simply something that happens “in the heart” or in our mouths. The body prays as well, and we should consciously bring our bodies into our prayer lives.

Sixth, one should also be mindful of the people of God. There is a special power that attends praying with God's people assembled. This is one of the reasons why the Jewish community so emphasizes the priority of having a "minyan" (a quorum) for prayer. Whenever possible, one ought to pray with the community.

Seventh, there is the provision for prayer, and that is the help of the Holy Spirit. Paul, no neophyte in the matter of prayer, said, "26 . . .the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we don't know how to pray the way we should. But the Spirit himself pleads on our behalf with groanings too deep for words; 27 and the one who searches hearts knows exactly what the Spirit is thinking, because his pleadings for God's people accord with God's will." It is always a good idea to ask for the help of the Spirit in the midst of our prayers.

Eighth, learn to thread the promises of God throughout your prayers. Repeatedly we see biblical characters doing this, as in the case of Daniel's prayers to God on the basis of God's promises to Jeremiah [Daniel, chapter nine]. This should not be done as a means of leveraging the Holy One, God forbid, or obligating Him. But it is a well-established pattern of God's people, ubiquitous in both the Bible and the Siddur. We should learn to do so as well--praying to God on the basis of His track record, His covenants and promises.

Ninth, cultivate a sensitivity to the Divine Presence during your time of prayer and seek to live in that awareness, in that sensitivity, as you go forth from your time of prayer. Prayer is not, after all, some kind of spiritual calisthenics, what James Kugel sardonically refers to as "spiritual jogging." Rather, it is an encounter with the Holy One, and a time of offering to him the sacrifice or prayer and, utlimately of ourselves.

Tenth, remember that all of this takes place within the context of priesthood--of your identity as a member of a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. We pray as part of a people, a people of destiny, of covenant, a people of privilege and responsibility. In part, the place of prayer is our place in the world. We would do well to remember this.


That’s all for now. More another time.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On Praying "In Yeshua's Name"

One of the clichés of evangelical culture, which has become the legacy of Messianic Judaism as well, is praying in Yeshua’s Name. It is something often extolled, often practiced, but poorly understood. Rather than being some sort of bumper sticker slogan that we append to our prayers as some sort of rhetorical rabbit’s foot guaranteeing luck at the throne of heaven, praying in Yeshua’s name makes a claim upon us. Honoring that claim can be the doorway to new spiritual depth and maturation for those who take it seriously.

Of course, praying in Yeshua’s Name includes praying on the basis of His atonement and High Priestly ministry. It has everything to do with that boldness of access through faith in Him of which Paul speaks [see Ephesians 2:18; 3:12], and the writer to the Hebrews describes [Hebrews 4:14-16]. This is the general sense of the popular concept of praying in Yeshua’s Name, corrupted by some into some kind of verbal talisman guaranteeing success.

But there is more—and here is where the claim upon us becomes apparent. Praying in Yeshua’s name means that we claim to be his authorized representatives, justified in claiming to speak as such. It is, as one web source puts it, “ambassador language” (www.new-life.net/faq009.htm). More than that, when we pray in Yeshua’s Name we are claming that our lives embody and honor the values and priorities of the One in whose name we come. And here is where the challenge—and the maturity come in.

This may be demonstrated by reference to Matthew 7:21-23, where we read, 21 "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'”

This passage makes it clear that laying claim to speaking in Yeshua’s Name includes being the kinds of people whose lives demonstrate commitment to His Kingdom, His values, His authority. And that just about says it all. If we are going to go around praying in Yeshua’s Name, we would do well to make sure that we are living under His authority.

Therein lies the challenge, the power, and the maturity we should all be seeking. When we pray in Yeshua’s Name we are claming that our lives embody and honor the values and priorities of the One in whose name we come. The challenge to us is to discover and embody all this means. And as we do so, then, by all means, let us pray "In Yeshua's Name."

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Our Children: A Neglected Priority

I believe that God has given me a kick in the butt, or a nudge in the spirit, if you prefer. He has given me a sense of urgency and a sense of what child education and spiritual formation is meant to be like in my congregation and in the Messianic Jewish movement as a whole. It is not a reassuring vision, but like those of Daniel, a disquieting one—disquieting because it makes me, and our movement, aware of our sins, their depth, and their consequences.

But there is hope here, for in this vision embodied in a text is the pathway of obedience to which God calls us all. And as is true of all mitzvot, it is on such pathways of obedience that we enjoy the manifestation of the Divine Presence. This view is typical of Judaism, and is one with which the Messiah of Israel concurs: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me, and the one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him” (John 14:21).

The vision of our responsibility is embodied in Psalm 78:1-8, which begins as follows:

1 O my people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter hidden things, things from of old-
3 what we have heard and known,
what our fathers have told us.

What bears first mention is the exhortation to “hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.” This is “sh'ma language.” The exhortation to hear is a call to listen up to an authoritative admonition requiring our obedience. But what is it that we are called to listen to?

We are called to heed the exhortation to pass on a sacred legacy to the coming generations. What is that legacy?

4 We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD ,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
5 He decreed statutes for Jacob
and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our forefathers
to teach their children,
6 so the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children.

That legacy includes the knowledge of the mighty works of God—“the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD> his power, and the wonders he has done.” We are responsible to transmit to our children a body of information—a foundation of learning about the LORD and His mighty works.

But there is more. We are responsible to teach our children the laws, the statues and ordinance of the Lord—His commandments. It is more than Bible stories, more than a sense of Jewish identity grounded in the stories of our ancestors for which we are responsible. We are accountable to teach the younger generation the commandments of God, that they might in turn teach these to future generations—and do them.

But there is more still. Certainly there is more to our responsibility than the standard watered down aspiration that too many settle for: to raise our children as ethical monotheists with a strong Jewish identity. Raising our children as responsible Jewish ethical monotheists can be done almost in spare time, and could perhaps be farmed out to professionals. Many would settle for this, but the Holy One wants more. Certainly His will for us is that it is the role of parents—not hired guns—to raise up the next generation to do His will and to please Him.

There is indeed still more.

7 Then they would put their trust in God
and would not forget his deeds
but would keep his commands.
8 They would not be like their forefathers-
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
whose hearts were not loyal to God,
whose spirits were not faithful to him.

Here we come to challenges facing our congregation and movement beyond the otherwise good and proper goal of raising responsible, monotheistic, moral children with a strong sense of Jewish identity.

In part the two verses just quoted recapitulate what was said before—that our children should not forget the mighty works of God, and should keep His commandments. But beyond this, the Psalmist calls us to raise up children who will put their trust in God, having hearts loyal to God, and spirits faithful to Him.

Beyond this, he also calls us to raise up children better than their forefathers. Many of us would settle if our children were as moral, spiritual, and Jewishly motivated as ourselves, our parents, or some saintly grandparent. But what if we accepted the challenge to raise up children more committed to God’s glory than ourselves, our parents, or our favorite saintly relative? This too is a goal this psalm sets before us.

Can these goals be accomplished in spare time, as a sideline, or farmed out to hired professionals? No, of course they cannot. They can only be accomplished by total dedication, by prayerful intensity, and all-out effort.

I am reminded of a documentary film I saw some years ago, “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.” This was a very interesting movie in many ways, but what caught my attention was seeing learned adult bearded men dedicating their lives to teaching very young children. What became clear in that movie was that the entire Hasidic community is something of an inverted pyramid dedicated to the nurture of the children—that these children “would put their trust in God, . . . would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands, (and develop) hearts . . . loyal to God . . . spirits . . .faithful to Him.” The Hasidim, and indeed the religious Jewish community in general understand that their faith is only one generation from extinction, and that this requires a priority-one approach to investing our spiritual treasures in the next generation, that they might be better than their ancestors, and that they might not only know their sacred legacy, but also trust God, with devoted hearts and faithful spirits.

On what basis could we possibly justify imagining the Holy One excusing the Messianic Jewish Movement, and each of our congregations, and ourselves, for doing any less?