The Bible and the West Bank

Bethlehem as seen from the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem

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An unsettling view

This past September, I was standing on the balcony of my friend’s house in Jerusalem. From there, I had a great view of Bethlehem (pictured above). I just stood there and stared, trying to take it all in. The neighborhood we were in is Gilo. Before 1967 and the Six-Day War, this was Jordan, not Israel. My friend pointed out a house down below. The owner was born before 1967. He has a Jordanian passport. That’s because Gilo is on the other side of the “Green Line,” the 1949 armistice line, written with green marker at the end of Israel’s War of Independence.

Following the Six-Day War, Israel annexed Gilo, making it part of Israel proper as it did with the rest of Jerusalem. The world community, on the other hand, regards Gilo as an illegal settlement, like all the other Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Standing on that balcony, aware of the disputed status of the neighborhood, I felt agitated. While I fundamentally support the State of Israel, I was unsettled by world opinion.

Policy shifts

Last month, November 18, 2019, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, signified a shift in the State Department’s policy toward Israeli settlements in the West Bank, when he announced: “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” The very next day, the United Nations overwhelmingly passed one of its one-sided anti-Israel resolutions that deems Israel as occupying Palestinian territory with no reference to Palestinian responsibility. Surprisingly, and marking its own policy shift, Canada supported the anti-Israel resolution, thus regarding the settlements, including where I was standing in Gilo, illegal.

Map based on UN Partition Plan of 1947 (click to enlarge)

The technicalities regarding the legal standing of the West Bank are far more complicated than what many think. The West Bank, a Jordanian designation for the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria, wasn’t intended to be part of Jordan. Jordan annexed it after capturing it in the Israel War of Independence. Under the UN Partition Plan of November 1947, it was proposed that the region was to be part of an Arab Palestinian state; that is, not Jordan, but a state for the Arab Palestinians living in the land, as opposed to the Jewish Palestinians (as they were then called). The term “Palestine” in those days had no ethnic connotation; it referred to the region as inhabited by Jews, Arabs, and others. The UN Partition Plan was passed by the UN and, in spite of the Arab world’s rejection of it, became the basis of the Palestinian Jewish settlement’s declaration of independence. Ironically, there was no outcry following the Jordanian takeover of the region as a part of the War of Independence; no outcry over the exile and murder of the residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. And yet, in June 1967, when Israel recaptured the Jewish Quarter as well as Judea and Samaria as part of the victory in a defensive war and was once again able to establish a presence in their ancient homeland, almost the entire world deemed it illegal.

Changing map of Palestine/Israel: 1947-1967 (click to enlarge)

I find it hypocritical that a country such as Canada can pass judgement on Israel when so much of our population enjoys the fruits of colonization. It is now popular, especially at public gatherings, to acknowledge the historic connection of a locale to the indigenous people who may have lived there centuries before. How they can be certain who the actual original people or peoples were, I don’t know. Be that as it may, in spite of these acknowledgments, to my knowledge, there is no attempt among Canadian governmental leaders to restore these lands to their original inhabitants. Neither has the UN passed a resolution declaring the Canadian Parliament, for example, and other such settlements, illegal.

So much more could be said about the historical, political, and social issues relating to Israel and  the West Bank. Understanding such issues are essential to developing a helpful perspective on a most difficult conflict. But as I stood on the balcony in Gilo, more than any of this, I longed to grasp what God thought.

Christians support of Israel

Some Christians express unwavering support of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. However, in my experience, most people who identify as Christian are either ambivalent or uncomfortable with making any connection between their faith and current issues surrounding the “Holy Land.” They are happy to make a religious pilgrimage to the region where the vast majority of Bible stories happened and “walk where Jesus walked.” Beyond that, modern Israel isn’t any more relevant to them than any other country.

These Christians may take the Bible very seriously yet regard the contemporary land of Israel as having no practical and ongoing relevance to their lives or their theology. They may affirm that Israel the people and Israel the land are central to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), and yet take Jesus’s fulfilment of Old Covenant expectation as a transformation of national and geographic issues to universal spiritual ones. The land of Israel becomes nothing more than an ancient stage upon which to learn grander spiritual truths.

Those Christians who support Israel tend to simply point out the very many land promises God gave to Israel (e.g. Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 16; 25:1-6; 26:3-4; 32:28; 35:12). Apart from treating the land promises of Hebrew scripture as still relevant, they may point to a New Testament passage such as Romans 11:29 (“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”) as evidence of God’s ongoing plan for the Jewish people, including the land promises.

The messianic connection

It seems to me that one of the reasons for many Christians’ resistance to the idea that the whole Bible consistently and unequivocally supports the ongoing Jewish divine claim to the land is that it doesn’t seem to have any connection to the centrality of Jesus as Savior. Many believers would agree with the sentiment recently expressed to me by a pastor who said something to the effect that the entire Bible is about salvation. Others term this as “it’s all about Jesus.” As someone whose life has been radically and wonderfully transformed by how the Scriptures vividly point to Yeshua, I understand the emphasis, but there is much more to the Bible than it’s functioning as a spiritual device to create a saving transaction between God and human beings through the Messiah.

The Bible is God’s written revelation to equip us to live effective godly lives (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This begins with and is sustained by a right relationship with God through trusting in his Son. But that’s just the beginning. The Bible also provides all we need as the basis of how to live life as God intends. Genuine, biblically informed, godliness requires gaining God’s perspective on the world in which we live, including understanding God’s relationship to Israel and the Land. Core to this is the direct connection between Jesus and the land promises to Israel.

Genesis chapter fifteen is well-known for the doctrine of justification by faith. In response to Abram’s concern that, due to his being childless, any inheritance he might have would eventually go to his servant, God clarifies that he will indeed have a son of his own. In fact, he was to have innumerable descendants. In spite of his current state, Abram trusted what God said, which in turn was counted to him by God as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6). But that’s not how the passage ends. In the very next verse, God reiterates the promise of the land. Note how he does it: He directs Abram to offer a special sacrifice, so he laid cut up carcasses of animals on the ground. Abram fell into a deep sleep in which God spoke to him about his descendants’ future bondage in Egypt, eventual release, and land acquisition. Then he saw (either in the dream or awake) a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the carcasses followed by these words: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites’” (Genesis 15:18-21).

This scene depicts an ancient custom of covenant making. The Hebrew for “making a covenant” is actually “cutting a covenant” most likely due to a custom such as this. It appears that when two parties cut a covenant in this way, their walking together between the pieces of the sacrifice was to illustrate that if either party fails to uphold their part of the covenant, then a plight similar to that of the carcasses was to befall them (see Jeremiah 34:18). However, in this case, Abram didn’t walk along with God. Instead God (illustrated by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch) walked through the pieces alone. Abram was to surmise, therefore, that if ever he (or his descendants after him) in any way betrayed the covenantal arrangement between him and God, God alone would suffer the consequences. Whether or not Abram understood the implications of what he saw, there is no doubt that God’s promise to him and his future offspring regarding the land was solemnly guaranteed by a pledge of God’s own life, so to speak.

Apart from the insight God gave Abram concerning the future plight of his offspring (see Genesis 15:13-16), Abram knew little of the complexity of the development of Israel—particularly the covenant given them through Moses at Mt. Sinai. He knew nothing of the specifics of how they would acquire the land under Joshua or the struggles they would face in the subsequent centuries. He didn’t know that his people would be eventually judged by God due to their unfaithfulness or that this judgment would include exile from the land promised to them through him. Yet Israel’s failure to be true to its calling as God’s chosen nation could not result in the absolute loss of the land. For God guaranteed otherwise by pledging to suffer the consequences of Israel’s failure. This he did through the Messiah when he died on the cross.

Readers of the New Testament rightly understand Jesus’s sacrifice for sin as the vehicle through which human alienation from God is resolved. What we have missed is that core to this sacrifice is God’s commitment to Abram and its direct relationship to the Land.

God’s giving of the Land to Abram’s descendants doesn’t automatically resolve the difficult and complex problems of modern Israel and the West Bank. But being aware of the foundational claim of the Jewish people to the Land, the West Bank included, sure makes me feel a lot better about staying with my friend in Gilo.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version.

God’s Faithfulness

The words, "God's Faithfulness" superimposed on the first page of the book of Hosea

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I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily. (Hosea 14:4-5)

It was October 20, 2015 – the second night of my first Israel tour. Due to the unique nature of our itinerary, we were staying one night at the Ashkelon Holiday Inn, not a frequent tourist destination. This is likely why the person at the front desk especially thanked me for being there. Just getting to know the Israel tour experience myself, I didn’t realize how close we were to the Gaza Strip. The next morning our tour guide took us on a special side trip to the town of Sderot, even closer to Gaza, to help us understand the existential danger Israel lives with every day.

Back to the evening before, we had a meeting with my old friend Avner Boskey. I first met Avner in the late 70s in Montreal. It was he who introduced me to Messianic music, which was just emerging in those days – songs such as “The Trees of the Field” (the trees of the field will clap their hands, CLAP-CLAP!). Here we were almost forty years later, as he shared with us God’s ongoing concern for the Jewish people. He closed our time by playing a couple of songs for us. The final one was Psalm 117, which he had put to music way back when:

O praise the Lord, all ye nations
Praise him, all ye peoples
For his lovingkindness is great to us
His truth is everlasting

He didn’t know that I had incorporated his version into the Messianic Passover Seder that I had developed and led countless times for all sorts of congregations, groups, and our own family. It’s part of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118), recited as part of major Jewish festivals.

So to sit there by Avner that night in Ashkelon, singing this song, was extremely precious to me on so many levels. But it was what he said right after that struck me. Until then I never realized what it was saying. He looked intently at our group and repeated the words: “Praise the Lord, all nations; praise him, all peoples. For his lovingkindness is great to us.” Then he said: “The nations are to praise the Lord, because of his faithfulness to us, the Jewish people.” Is that what I and others had been singing all those years? Is that what the inspired Psalm has been proclaiming for much longer than that? That is what it says.

I don’t think that Avner was aware that I entitled my tour, “God’s Faithfulness Then & Now” (as is our next tour in October 2020). Yet in that moment he shed so much light on this foundational biblical truth. The day before we had been to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and learned about the circumstances surrounding Israel’s declaration of independence and the war that followed. Against all odds, the fledgling state survived. And against all odds since then, it has not only  survived but thrived. For those among the nations who have eyes to see, God be praised indeed!

In my role as part-time, interim pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church, I just completed a four-part series on the prophet Hosea, the theme of which can be summarized as God’s faithfulness to an unfaithful people. There are two common misconceptions among Christians with regard to the people of Israel as they read the Bible. First, that Israel’s failure to live up to God’s standards results in not only their demise, but also in their complete rejection by God. Yet one certainly cannot derive such a thing from Hosea of all books. While his writing contains some of the most discouraging descriptions of Israel in the Bible, God’s commitment to them couldn’t be stated much stronger. The negative aspects of the book are best described as cynical (God’s saying: “I love you, I love you, come back to me – but I know you won’t, so you will face disaster). Yet it’s the intense darkness of this level of negativity that makes God’s unwavering faithfulness to Israel that much more vivid.

The second common misconception is that Israel’s unfaithfulness to God functions in the Bible as a way to demonstrate the results of bad behavior. That is partly true, but not in terms of “look at what they did,” which completely misrepresents a core aspect of Israel’s chosen-ness. Israel wasn’t chosen for its particular tendency toward failure. But rather, because it best reflects the nature of the whole world. Reading about Israel in the Bible was designed by God to be like looking in a mirror. Everyone should be able to see themselves in the lives and experiences of Israel. To distance oneself from Israel in the Bible is to refuse to accept one’s own nature.

When people fail to grasp Israel’s representative role among the nations, they cut themselves off from experiencing God’s faithfulness. It is only when we realize our desperate need of God’s rescuing power in our own lives that we are in a place to receive it. When we read Hosea or any other part of the Bible, we encounter God’s committed unwavering love for his people. If God won’t give up on Israel, he won’t give up on you now. And if he won’t give up on you, how much more will he not give up on Israel?

My sermon series on Hosea can be heard here.

 

Effectively Engaging Scripture: Torah, Law, & Covenant

The words, "Alan Gilman - Bible Teacher | Effectively Engaging Scripture: Torah, Law, & Covenant" superimposed on an open Hebrew Bible

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One of the most misunderstood concepts in the Bible is what is commonly referred to as “the Law.” Without a truly authentically biblical grasp of the meaning and place of the Law, we will never be able to engage Scripture as God intends. What the Law means, its purpose, and its relevancy if any, in the life of the believer in the present day has been controversial through the centuries. Some believe that the “new” in New Covenant necessitates a complete break with anything that comes before, especially if it has Moses’ name associated with it. On the other extreme, there are those who claim that if it’s anywhere in the Bible, then it must have direct application to us today. Both of these oversimplify the God-designed complexity of Scripture, thus preventing us from fully experiencing it as we should.

When Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), he had the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in mind. We know this since the New Covenant Writings (New Testament) were in its earliest stages of development. Paul here asserts that not only is Hebrew Scripture divinely inspired, it has been designed by God as our equipment for effective godly living. Any theological, philosophical, or practical approach that aims at disconnecting us from this section of Holy Scripture, cuts us off from God’s essential communication to us.

The Law as Negative?

But doesn’t Paul refer to the Law in negative terms, dissuading his readers from submitting to it in any way? For example: “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Galatians 3:23). This and other passages depict the Law as relevant for only a time. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews apparently agrees: “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13). This seems to be in line with Yeshua’s own teaching, whether the six times in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says “You heard it was said, but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21-48), his teaching on the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34, Luke 10:25-28), or the new commandment (John 13:31-35).

How can Paul assert the usefulness of the Hebrew Scriptures, while at the same time appear to call his readers to distance themselves from it? This apparent contradiction is resolved once we understand the breadth of the Scriptures’ teaching on this matter.

Translation Issues and Word Usage

We will begin by looking at the Hebrew and Greek words normally translated into English as “law.” Then we will discuss the relationship of law to the concept of covenant. While confusing at first, I am sure that the closer we look, the more straightforward this will become. My hope is that you will discover how Hebrew Scripture, including the Law, functions within a New Covenant context.

One of, if not the, reason why this subject is confusing is that the term for “law” in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Covenant Writings is used in different ways in different contexts. The term “law” in the English Bible is a translation of the Hebrew word, “torah.” But torah actually means, “direction” or “teaching.” The reason why English Bibles use law is because the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Septuagint (often referred to as LXX), used the word “nomos,” meaning, as you might guess, law. The Greek word nomos and English word law are not completely wrong. Law is a normal word for rules and directions, whether they be humanly derived or divinely inspired. However, it isn’t the most helpful in that it tends to give the impression of a cold legal code, while God’s torah is far more dynamic and engaging. As it is embedded within the story of Israel, we are meant to understand God’s directives as part of real-life experiences, thus providing the reader, then and now, with more than a list of rules, but rather an extensive understanding of life. This is why it is better to take “torah” to mean more than simply law, but rather God’s instruction.

Just as it is common to refer to a collection of laws as “the Law” so, the word torah, depending on context, may be a reference to a particular directive or the whole collection, the Torah. Another use of Torah as a collective term is how it acts as a title for the first five books of the Bible. That’s because these books are associated with the giving of the Torah (beginning with Genesis as a sort of prologue, followed by Exodus through Deuteronomy).

Because the word “torah” means direction or teaching, not simply legal statements, any correct understanding of God’s directives, in part or as a whole is also torah. So, in the broadest sense of the word, torah refers to all that God has revealed throughout the entire Bible as well as legitimate interpretations. That doesn’t mean every aspect of God’s torah is applicable to every person in every place at every time. We will look at how to approach this broad understanding of torah shortly, but first, we need to note one more key usage of the word that will make all the difference to this discussion.

Torah as Covenant

God’s Torah was given to Israel within a covenantal system at Mt. Sinai. Such a covenant functions as a national constitution, a high-level control system within which the details of life are stipulated. Because the covenant is the system within which torah functions, the covenant is also called Torah.

So far we have seen that Torah can be a particular human rule, good or bad, or it can be a directive of God. It can be used in a collective sense as a way to refer to all of what God instructs, be it the specifics through Moses or the full body of scriptural teaching and interpretations. Torah is a way to refer to the first five books of the Bible. And finally, it is intimately associated with the system or covenant within which God revealed his instruction to Israel.

The New Covenant Writings are aware of all these uses (I provide one example per use here; for a thorough word study, see https://biblehub.com/greek/3551.htm). Like Hebrew, the Greek word nomos can mean laws in general, humanly or divinely derived (Romans 3:27); God’s directives as given by Moses (Matthew 5:18); the books of the Torah (Matthew 7:12); God’s timeless directives (James 2:8); or the Sinai covenant (Galatians 3:23).

Paul’s concern over not being “under the law,” has to do with Torah as covenant. This is similar to regarding it as obsolete in the Book of Hebrews. Both writers are addressing for different reasons that there has been a change of the system governing God’s instruction. Hebrews clarifies this by stating: “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law (nomos/torah) as well” (Hebrews 7:12). The Levitical priesthood was a core constitutional component of the Sinai Covenant. The change in priesthood from the descendants of Moses’s brother Aaron to the eternal priesthood of the Messiah radically transforms the covenantal system.

For Paul, this covenantal change had enormous implications for his God-given mission to the non-Jewish world. The Sinai Covenant constituted the people of God exclusively as natural Israel. The New Covenant as promised by Jeremiah (see 31:31-33) and instituted by the Messiah allowed for the God of Israel to be fully embraced by the nations without submitting to an Israel-centric system.

Torah and New Covenant

The reconstitution of the people of God under the New Covenant doesn’t dismantle natural Israel as some might think, however. Israel as a distinct nation was eternally established by God through his earlier covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What’s changed is that the intimacy with God which Sinai sought to bring about but failed due to Israel’s unfaithfulness is now available to all nations through the New Covenant as established by the Messiah.

This helps us to understand what was going on in Acts chapter 15. The controversy over whether or not non-Jewish believers in Yeshua had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses was a covenantal question. In those early days of the Messianic community, some thought that there was to be absolute continuity with the Sinai Covenant. They didn’t yet understand the full implications of constitutional change. It would be years before the change of priesthood spoken of in Hebrews would be vividly demonstrated by the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Sinai sacrificial system. Still, Paul demonstrated with agreement from Peter, James, and the others, that with the dawning of the Messianic age in Yeshua, the truth of God and his instruction (torah) could be exported to the nations without making non-Jews subject to the old Sinai Covenant.

This meant that Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Yeshua would grapple with God’s inspired written word (the Hebrew Scriptures exclusively in those days) within the New Covenant system. It would necessitate determining what of God’s directives were universal and timeless, which ones, if any, were for Jewish people only, and which ones were rendered obsolete by the change of covenant. The New Covenant Writings help in this regard but provide no easy formula. They help because we see the implications of the teaching of Hebrew Scripture throughout (even though many readers are not aware of this). And yet, there is no clear indication, contrary to what some may think, as to how to classify God’s directives into ancient Israel only vs. relevant to the worldwide New Covenant community. This means each generation and cultural context needs to discern by careful study and the help of the Holy Spirit how the Hebrew Scriptures speak to us today. But that they do, there is no doubt.

Jeremiah captures the essence of torah’s continued relevancy in his prophesy of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-33). While the New Covenant was not to be like the old one, under the New Covenant, God would cause torah be internalized. Not only would this result in his people having passionate willingness to obey God’s directives, his directives themselves would be understood to the depths of their intent. This is what Yeshua was preparing his followers for when he said, “You heard it was said, but I say to you” mentioned above. He wasn’t contradicting God’s directives as revealed in the Torah. He was contradicting popular thought by providing God’s own perspective on his word. God always intended his word to be followed from deep within our beings. Under the Sinai Covenant this wasn’t possible because sin (that which twists human beings away from God) had not yet been dealt with. It would take Yeshua’s sacrifice and overcoming of death to open the way to a new system within which God would be intimately known and his instruction (torah) to be followed from the heart.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

King of the Jews

Grunge-styled Star of David superimposed upon object's of Yeshua's crucifixion with the words "The King of the Jews - The Thinking Biblically Podcast with Alan Gilman - June 26, 2019"

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God’s creation is a wonderfully integrated complexity of things visible and invisible. To effectively navigate the world in which we live, it is necessary to not only acknowledge these two realms but learn how they interrelate. For a biblically grounded believer in Yeshua, the existence of the two realms should be a given. Yet how they work together isn’t easily understood. When we regard the spiritual world as more real than the natural one, for example, it necessarily implies that the physical world is less real, whatever that might mean. Yet, in actuality, as confirmed by Scripture, there is only the real world; nothing is less real. Besides God himself, there is only what he has created, visible and invisible. Anything else simply doesn’t exist.

As human beings, we ourselves are made up of seen and unseen elements. While we interact with the spiritual elements of life, we do so within the physical realm via our bodies. The only exception to this is in death, when we experience a temporary loss of physicality until the resurrection.

Our tendency to diminish or disregard the essentiality of our physicality works to undermine how God has revealed himself within the creation. Experiencing God is something that happens in and through our bodies, through the circumstances of life—in history in other words. According to Scripture, God revealed himself in real time in and through real people doing real things. This is expressed through the various elements of human engagement: family, community, politics, and so on. It’s the full description of these true stories that are the basis of our knowledge of God and his ways. The truth of God is not hidden within the narrative of Scripture; rather it is revealed through it. We are in danger of disassociating truth from Scripture when we reduce its narrative to theological principles and moral lessons.

Few events in Scripture are mistreated in this way as much as the crucifixion of the Messiah. On the outset, I am not saying that the tomes of theological considerations derived from this most crucial event are therefore illegitimate. The unjust death of the Son of God is perhaps the densest and most profound thing that has ever happened or will happen. Its implications are virtually limitless. That, of course, doesn’t justify every claim of truth that has been attempted as a result. It’s just to say that it is good and well to ponder even the most minute aspects of Yeshua’s sacrifice. My concern over disconnecting the event from its historical context, however, is twofold. First, failure to do so opens the door to all sorts of fanciful interpretations, such as likening the Messiah’s death to a pagan myth, turning it into some sort of modern hero story, or oversentimentalizing it. Second, the tendency to mine the event for spiritual and timeless truths and principles easily misses key and meaningful historical elements within the real-world situation it occurred.

One such element that has not been given the level of consideration that it deserves is the charge under which the Romans executed Yeshua. It was customary for charges to be nailed on the cross over the head of the alleged criminal. Under God’s providence the representative of that day’s world power, the governor Pontius Pilate, executed the Messiah for being “the King of the Jews”. Note that he wasn’t executed for insurrection, as if he claimed to be king but was not. That’s what some of the Jewish leadership would have preferred. From a human perspective, that also makes a whole lot more sense. Yeshua was leading a messianic movement that the majority didn’t recognize as genuine. The Jewish political and religious leadership rejected it, while Rome, the imperial power, was really good at keeping would-be rebels in their place.

But Pilate purposely didn’t phrase the charge that way. He wanted to make sure the Jewish crowd knew what Rome thought of Jewish kingship of any kind. He didn’t really know what he was doing. As far as he was concerned, he was mocking the Jews. He didn’t know that his arrogance was the tool God was using to proclaim the identity of the true King of Israel and savior of the world.

How ironic that Caesar’s representative was setting the empire up for the exaltation of the earth’s rightful sovereign. But there’s more than irony going on here. Rome’s disdain for the Jews as expressed through Pilate is essential to grasping Yeshua’s true identity. Failing to understand Yeshua’s being the King of the Jews as vividly reflected precisely in this moment undermines our understanding of who we are and prevents us from fulfilling our God-ordained mission effectively.

Let me explain. Pilate’s mockery of the Jewish people through Yeshua’s crucifixion represents the world’s disdain for God’s plans and purposes. God had determined that the oppression of the curse endured by the human family ever since our first parents’ rebellion in the Garden would be alleviated through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God chose Israel as his instrument of blessing to the world, culminating in the Jewish Messiah, the King of the Jews. Throughout history, the forces of evil have especially focused on the Jewish people for no other reason than chosenness. The term used to describe this unique form of injustice is anti-Semitism.

When the Son of God became human in order to save the world, he didn’t just become a man; he became a Jewish man. On one level, this was necessary, because it was prophesied as such. But his embracing Jewish identity was not so that he could simply check off of a predictive checklist. He entered into a life of service as the ideal Chosen One among chosen ones. He willingly took on Jewish stigma, which culminated in his crucifixion. His death for sin on the cross was dramatically proclaimed in terms of intimate identification with the Jewish people.

This highlights the terrible ironic tragedy of the continued Jewish misunderstanding of this event. What was intended by God as ultimate Jewish identification—Yeshua suffering under perhaps the worst case of anti-Semitism of all time—has been twisted into ongoing Jewish disdain by the very people who claim to have benefitted by his loving act of sacrifice. The cross should have been a sign of Jewish fulness and salvation not the symbol of the so-called Christian anti-Semitism it became.

That Christians would show disdain towards Jews is bad enough. The New Testament is clear that arrogance on the part of non-Jewish Yeshua followers towards Jews is completely inappropriate (see Romans 11:7-18). Such a negative attitude would have never been the case if Christians would have sufficiently identified with the suffering King of the Jews. Appreciating the Savior in his suffering for sin on our behalf necessitates appreciating the practical context in which his suffering occurred. He died a horrific death under evil’s disdain for Israel, God’s chosen. As the King of the Jews, Yeshua bore the brunt of Jewish stigma for us all. To identify with the King of the Jews, therefore, necessarily includes bearing that same stigma and identifying with Jewish suffering whether we be Jewish or not.

Half Empty or Half Full?

Bible Teacher Alan Gilman with his half-full/half-empty t-shirt

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“What is that smell!” I blurted upon entering the house. “I don’t smell anything,” my wife, Robin, said in keeping with our well-established roles. I am the “noticer,” especially regarding items of the nose. While she (most of the time) gladly lives life in the moment – an extraordinary quality that certainly helped her in the raising of – not to mention homeschooling of – our ten children. We were living in Port Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, at the time. We had recently bought our first house – a unique house for our unique family. The previous owner took a small rancher and added an addition to the top and back, just about tripling its original size. The construction of the addition likely played a part in what was causing the mysterious smell.

I was sure it was coming from the large pantry under the stairs. Robin graciously cleaned it out, making sure to dispose of any possible culprit and carefully cleaned it down. She thought all was fine. But not to my nose. “It still smells.”

It wasn’t until a friend of ours came over and said the smell (“I told you!”) reminded her of dead rodent that we began our quest unto resolution. Thankfully, w e knew someone with considerable expertise in determining the location of said deceased critters, who discovered the culprit. A dead rat had set up his final resting place in the wall behind the pantry in between the original house and the addition.

Since then I have taken great pride in my ability to (literally) smell a dead rat. After all where would the world be without people like me! Most everyone else is cluelessly living life oblivious to the dead rats rotting in the recesses of their lives, while I know what’s lurking behind the wall. But here’s the downside. I tend also to be suspicious, quickly assuming the negative before sufficient evidence comes to light. So different from my wife who tends to assume the positive.

In a perfect world this difference should wonderfully complement each other. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and we are not perfect people. I would find myself frustrated with my wife’s propensity toward the positive, labelling it as denial. I would get so passionate to both identify and fix problems in our relationship and parenting, while I took her lack of alarm to be unhelpful insensitivity to reality (remember the dead rat?).

I remember the time when our eldest daughter was considering moving to Haiti to be a teacher. A small private school had an urgent need and was looking for able souls who were willing to drop what they were doing to help. Since she had spent a few weeks in Haiti years before on an outreach, we were familiar with the challenge of living there. I decided to do some additional research and learned how Haiti is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The subject soon came up at our dinner table and I was taken aback at how laissez-faire Robin was taking the possibility of her precious little daughter (who was about thirty at the time) going to what amounted to be a war zone (in my estimation). So it was obviously my duty to inform my overly trusting wife of the potential danger. To which she retorted: “You are trying to scare me, but it’s not going to work.”

Some of you may not understand how threatening such words of confidence are to someone of our upbringing. In our Jewish culture worry is a value. No joke. Traditionally, Jewish mothers viewed their worry capacity as efficacious in protecting their children. I know life doesn’t really work this way, but deep in my family line is the conviction that someone needs to worry! In our case, the roles were reversed. And so it was. Obviously, Mr. Sensitive had to regularly sound the alarm, because Mrs. Happy-Go-Lucky would probably one day burn the house down and wouldn’t know it. (Note: this is being written from my perspective. Robin’s version is different.)

If you are more like me than my wife, you’d probably agree that the world needs more people like us. People who don’t take things at face value, but are willing to pull back the curtain of the phony exteriors of life in the way Dorothy exposed the Wizard of Oz. But if you are like me you may not be quick to see the destructive nature of my suspicious, worrisome tendencies. I certainly wasn’t.

That’s why I didn’t like thinking too much about Bible verses such as James 1:2, which reads: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” This supposed positive relationship towards hardship didn’t seem to jive with my version of life. The joy James speaks of here, I thought, must be some profound sense of inner consolation that sustains the soul in spite of terrible circumstances. It’s the “anchor of the soul” (see Hebrews 6:19) that keeps us from completely drifting away, while on top of the water, where life really happens, we may be going completely crazy. Honest assessment of reality demands not belittling the intensity of our struggles in the real world. James may not agree, however. Some months ago, I decided to look more closely at his use of the word “joy.” To my surprise, it’s the word “chara.” It’s what the shepherds felt having seen the baby Yeshua. It’s the same word for “rejoicing.” It’s like the Hebrew “simcha,” celebratory joy. Not only does James call for celebration he calls for “all” or “pure” joy.

Accepting James’s words set me on a course of discovery. Perhaps my approach wasn’t so godly after all. Maybe my wife had a point. I was raised to believe that having a cold is likely the first step to an early death (I am only slightly exaggerating). While she claims when a person gets sick, they feel lousy for a while, and then get better. Doesn’t she know the statistics concerning the number of deaths from sickness? Maybe she does, because it turns out far more people recover from illness than not. And I hear worrying about it doesn’t promote healing.

My next biblical discovery also surprised me. I was spending a longer than normal time in my daily Bible reading, pondering over Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As I was reading, I would be drawn back to earlier passages, thus reminding me of the context in which he was writing. As I came to chapter four, I was very aware by that time that much of Paul’s directives to this community was based on his concern over significant unnecessary personal conflicts they were having. It was with this in mind that I came upon this familiar verse:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

Up until then I always thought of these instructions as cautions against impure input along the lines of the old children’s song, “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See.” While something like this may be implied by such words, that doesn’t seem to be Paul’s point. Once I realized that the context of what Paul is writing is relational, then these familiar words take on new (and likely more legitimate) meaning. Paul is here instructing the Philippians and, by extension, us, on how to think about people.

I didn’t realize how much my suspicious tendencies drew me to think negatively about others. I would leverage what I thought was a biblical understanding of human beings to justify suspicion. I was smelling rats where there were none.

This doesn’t mean that we should be naïve. When problems do exist, they should be addressed. The Bible instructs on how to deal with serious issues (see Matthew 7:1-6). But how much energy do people like me put into dwelling on negatives that may not exist? When Paul writes to “think” about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, it’s along the lines of considering or, better yet, pondering. This is not an exhortation to have nice little thoughts, but to focus one’s mind on that which is truly good. So much for suspicion and negativity.

How can we love God with all our minds (see Deuteronomy 6:5; Matthew 22:37, etc.) if we allow ourselves to dwell upon negative ‘what-ifs’? What place can worry have if we accept that God causes all things to work together for good (see Romans 8:28)? What have we to fear if God is for us (see Romans 8:31ff); we who are vessels of the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 4:7ff), who believe in the one who conquered death itself (see 1 Corinthians 15:54ff).

A close friend of mine, whom I worked with for years, was concerned about my tendency toward negative thinking. Soon after my contract with his firm ended, I received a mysterious package in the mail. It was a t-shirt with an illustration on the front. There was no indication at the time who sent it, but I eventually figured it out. There was just a brief anonymous note on the packing slip that read: “It is what you make of it.” The illustration was of a container. At the top end of the container was fire, a tombstone, lightening, and a skull. At the bottom were birds singing, sunshine, a rainbow, and hearts. As I showed it to my some of my kids, one of them said, “It’s a glass half-full/half-empty!” She was right. My friend was trying to make a point.

One of my justifications for negative thinking has been a supposed commitment to being real. For that reason, I have resisted the principle that life is dependent on our attitude. To me, that always has sounded like make-believe. I would rather be real and serious than be comforted by fantasy. But as I have looked more closely at the truth of Scripture, it’s not about simply having a positive attitude disconnected from reality. It’s taking into account who God really is and what he has really done. It’s seeing ourselves from the perspective of our relationship with him. It’s how we should respond to life’s challenges given his overall purposes in general and for our lives in particular.

Therefore, is my glass half-full or half-empty? Well, what does the Bible say about that? According to King David, it’s neither. The man after God’s own heart, who went through so much, said it best: “My cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Power in Weakness

A funny young guy posing in front of brown background with muscular body shadow reflected on the wall

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My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

What do you picture when you hear “God’s power is made perfect in weakness?” Is it something like “in spite of my weakness, I can experience God’s strength”? It’s something like you get up in the morning feeling like you hadn’t slept a wink. Coffee makes no difference, and you have an impossible day ahead of you. So perhaps you say a quick prayer for help, somehow untapping physical and emotional resources you didn’t know you had. You get into bed that night wondering how you did it and offer another quick prayer, thanking God for getting you through.

I’d say this is a pretty common occurrence for a lot of people (with or without the prayer). We are often surprised that we can do more than we expect. When necessary we find strength we didn’t know we had. That’s a real thing. And whether we believe in God or not, whether we pray or not, it’s something to thank him for. But that’s not what this verse is about.

Human potential is a fascinating thing. Most of us have little to no conception of what we really are. The vast majority of us have more brain power and more physical ability than we realize. It isn’t until the opportunity arises that we reckon with the stuff we are made of. That’s still not this.

Much of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is his critique of certain self-appointed leaders, referred to (in many English translations) as “super-apostles” (see 2 Corinthians 11:5). These were impressive folks, especially in terms of their outward appearance and speaking ability. Paul, on the other hand, didn’t score very high on externals. What he was seeking to show the Corinthians was that what really counted was not personal appeal and human ability, but the genuine nature of God’s power at work through otherwise unlikely people such as himself.

Far from possessing the confident, self-reliance of the super apostles, Paul had suffered greatly for his faith in all sorts of ways. He explains this in detail in chapters four and five of the letter. For example, he writes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Note Paul’s reference to “our outer self is wasting away,” which most likely means that “this light momentary affliction” is an understatement. It’s easy to miss what Paul must mean by his “outer self wasting away,” because he so quickly mentions “being renewed day by day.” The inner renewal is very real, but we need to grasp the implications of this occurring in a body that is “wasting away.” It is here that we can begin to understand how God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.”

God’s power is not a booster to otherwise weak persons. He is not a heavenly energy drink giving us the extra jolt we need to make it through the day. When God told Paul, “my power is made perfect in weakness,” this is to say that God’s power and our weakness co-exist within the believer at the exact same time.

Paul illustrates this in an earlier part of chapter four, where he writes: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7). The power of God residing in us is treasure contained in weak, fragile vessels. The treasure doesn’t change the quality of the vessel.

On one hand I think we know this. We know God’s power doesn’t turn the fragile clay into durable gold. We still retain our bodies as they are. Yet I have the impression that many assume if the power of God truly resides in us, we would feel the Holy Spirit pulsating through our veins or something like that. Paul, on the other hand, was trying to explain to the Corinthians that God’s power resides in and is expressed through truly weak vessels. God’s power doesn’t make the weak feel strong. It might make the person look strong to others because it is so effective. This is why it is easy to get confused. When God’s power works through a person, we tend to give the person an inordinate amount of credit. Not that we shouldn’t acknowledge a person’s role in their being used by God, it’s that we need to remember that the power in no way originates in the person, but in God.

It’s not just others that confuse the person’s role in being a vessel of God’s power. When we are weak, sensing our inability to be vessels of God’s power, we often look to ourselves for his power, waiting for some sense of emerging ability upon which to rely. But if we understood this as Paul did, then we would know that we are always weak and that God’s power doesn’t depend on a personal sense of strength. Not only does God want to work through us in spite of our weakness. He works through the weaknesses themselves.

When we think of elite athletes, I imagine that we don’t think of them as illustrating strength proven through weakness. But think again. To function at extraordinary levels necessitates pushing oneself to the furthest extremities of their abilities. It’s misleading to observe a medal-contending weightlifter, for example. Their muscles are bursting where we didn’t think muscles existed, while the vast majority of us wouldn’t lift the weights a millimeter off the ground let alone chest level and higher. To succeed, however, they must push themselves beyond their ability to a place where they feel the weakest, where they don’t actually know if they will be able to do it. It is there, in the realm of weakness, where they must go. It is there that strength is proven.

The power of God is proven in us in the same way. That which God wants us to do is beyond our capability. He doesn’t simply want to enhance our humanity, encouraging us to stretch ourselves beyond what we are used to. He wants to accomplish the impossible. Not what seems impossible, but truly impossible. Once we accept that, then perhaps we’ll stop depending on ourselves and depend on him who has the power.

While this can feel overwhelming to think about, the dynamic of God’s power proven through weakness is not a novel idea, nor unique to life in Yeshua. God’s power through Yeshua is available to a greater degree, but it is the fulfilment of a dynamic that began at creation. The second chapter of the Bible tells us: “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). From the very beginning, the uniqueness of human beings is wrapped up with the instilling of the very breath of God. The essence of who we are as God’s image bearers is dependent on his power, not our own. As Paul illustrates, all people were designed to be treasure-filled clay pots.

The power to live as human beings according to God’s design has always and will always reside in God and not in us. That means we shouldn’t expect to feel able to do what God wants us to do. On the contrary, the more open we are to what God wants us to do, the less able we will feel. Therefore, don’t be surprised when you honestly think to yourself that what God is telling you to do is impossible for you, because it is.

This doesn’t mean that you can do anything you want whether you are able to or not. Many well-meaning people are willing to do things they are not equipped to do. If God is not so directing, that is foolishness. Paul certainly had skills in communicating. He was effective in preaching and teaching. Yet he was taxed beyond his ability, not simply in his skill to communicate, but every aspect of life. The challenges he faced as he served God were overwhelming to him. Yet God’s power was made perfect through this weak vessel. He wants to do the same through you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Is It Getting Blurry?

Crowd of people. Center circle in focus; the rest blurry.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

I had the privilege of sharing the story and meaning of Hanukkah four times this month. At All Saints Lutheran where I am currently providing Sunday morning pulpit supply, at my two Bible classes at St. Timothy’s Classical Academy, and at a weekly Bible study for staffers on Parliament Hill. Most Christians aren’t aware that this festival is found in the New Testament (John 10:22) or that the preserving of the Jewish people against pagan assimilation forces is key to God’s salvation plan (no Hanukkah, no Christmas). It’s always encouraging to be reminded of the God-inspired victory of the Maccabees – the weak over the strong and the few over the many. I love explaining how each night the lights of Hanukkah are lit by a special “servant” (Hebrew: shamash) candle. Just as the shamash lights up the others, so Yeshua, God’s servant and Light of the World, lights us up to shine God’s light.

There’s a whole lot more to Hanukkah, but this year I focused most of all on how it illumines (pun intended) the biblical concept of distinctiveness. Distinctions between things is one of the most basic aspects of God’s creation. Without distinctions the world would be nothing but a big blur. When God spoke light into being, he purposely distinguished it from the darkness. Same with the sea and the dry ground. Then, by creating human beings in his image, he made us distinct from the animals, not to mention our essential distinction of being male and female.

In spite of the (dare I say) obvious nature of such distinctions, it is common to deny them. To many they are nothing more than personal preferences, if they exist at all. For those who know better, this denial is curious at best, troubling at worst. But such is the nature of darkness. Everything looks the same in the dark.

The common explanation for the lighting of the Hanukkah lights is the miracle of the one day’s worth of oil that lasted eight days even though this is most likely a legend concocted many centuries after the event to distract the Jewish world from the heroic faith of the Maccabees. The actual miracle proclaimed by the Hanukkah lights is the small Jewish army’s courage to stand against the darkness of political correctness. Many of God’s people allowed themselves to be absorbed by the pagan assimilation forces, until Mattityahu and his priestly clan under the leadership of his son Judah redrew lines of distinction between God’s ways and the ungodly cultural forces.

Light is the great distinctive force. For not only are its properties in contrast to darkness, it enables us to perceive all other distinctions. Darkness will never prevail. God will see to that. Yet the light is fading. It is said that the most dangerous times of the day to be on the roads are dawn and dusk. It’s fairly light out, but distinctions become deceptively blurry. Such is where we are at in history. As the presence of God’s light fades, we think we see clearly, even as everything increasingly looks the same.

In spite of appearances, God’s light has not gone out. Its brilliant blaze is available to all who are willing to receive it and allow it to shine through them. But it will take Maccabean courage to do so. It can be harsh to turn the lights on all of a sudden, especially as so many have grown accustomed to the fuzzy greyness. Let’s not fail this generation by leaving it in the dark. It’s time to shine!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Hanukkah for the Nations

This is an updated version of a TorahBytes message I wrote a few year ago.

Hanukkah for the Nations

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. (Zechariah 2:14-16 / English 2:10-12)

In Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is referred to as a minor festival, since it was not established through Moses. But this is not a reflection of its importance. For without the events commemorated by this popular celebration, the world would be a very different place.

In the mid-2nd century before Yeshua’s coming, the plan and purposes of God almost came to an end. The assimilation forces under the rule of the Hellenistic Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes were being very effective among the Jews in Israel. They, along with the ongoing presence of God’s truth on Earth, may have been wiped out had not God intervened through the small band of faithful Israelites known as the Maccabees. That God may have preserved his people and his plan by some other means is most likely. Yet, it is instructional to look at just how crucial these events were and what was at stake.

God chose the people of Israel to make himself known to the nations. That was why God called Abraham in the first place. His plan was never concerned about Israel alone, but about the world. Precisely how that was going to work out was not clear in the Hebrew Bible. A common notion derived from the prophets was that as God brought restoration to Israel, the nations too would benefit as a spillover effect. What was not anticipated was that people from all nations would have the opportunity to personally and intimately come to know the God of Israel too.

While this does not get clearly spelled out until after Yeshua’s coming, there are prophetic portions that do suggest that non-Jews would one day have a personal relationship with God. One of those portions is read as a special reading on the Sabbath that occurs during the eight days of Hanukkah. Zechariah was a prophet a few centuries before the first Hanukkah, when the Jewish people were in the early stages of rebuilding the nation after returning from the exile to Babylon. It was a difficult and discouraging time. But God through Zechariah sought to encourage the people by speaking of an unknown future time of great restoration when God himself would live among his people. When this happens not only will the Jewish people be restored to God, but members of other nations would join themselves to the God of Israel and become his people too.

The inclusion of other nations to be part of the people of God is the fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing through Abraham and his descendants to the world. But note how the inclusion of Gentiles is connected to Israel’s restoration. God’s establishment of and faithfulness to the nation of Israel is a necessary component of God’s rescue plan for the world. Israel was not simply the warm up to God’s greater purposes among the nations. Israel is God’s plan through which salvation comes to all.

That is why God’s preservation of Israel commemorated at Hanukkah is a cause for celebration not just for Jewish people, but for everyone. The whole world should honor the Maccabees for resisting being absorbed into the Greek worldview of their day, so that through the Messiah Yeshua people of every tribe, nation, and language could be an instrument of God’s light today.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version

Poop Is Not a Toy

Crossed out Poo emojii

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Did you know that some of the most popular toys this holiday season are poop-themed? I am not talking about novelty items designed to gross you out. There’s that too, but big-name toy and game companies such as Hasbro and Mattel are hoping to make some big bucks via poop-related fun. Don’t believe me, check out the Play-Doh Poop Troop Set or the Pooparoos Surpriseroos Figures. In case you are one of the few people who haven’t seen a poop plush pillow, check it out here. Or how about a poop pinata.

The current poop trend began with the poop emoji. Emojiis are the ubiquitous small digital graphics that often accompany text messages. They are effective and often fun shorthand to express an idea, especially emotions (e.g. 😊 😠 😢). One of the most-used emoji currently is “pile of poo,” or simply “poo,” and is a clump of feces shaped like a soft chocolate ice cream swirl. While it often includes eyes and a smiling face, it is often used to convey a negative reaction to something. But now that it has become so popular in the toy world, the underlying gross factor normally associated with human waste has given way to playfulness and cuteness.

But poop isn’t a plaything; neither is it cute. There is nothing about it that should be appealing, not to mention hug-able. In the Torah (Books of Moses), D’varim/Deuteronomy 23:12-14, God considers it to be “indecent.” The Hebrew word for indecent here is “erva’,” indicating something shameful that should not be exposed. Therefore, the people were required to defecate “outside the camp” and to cover up their excrement. Like the rest of Scripture, a value statement such as this isn’t God simply expressing his druthers. Having designed creation, he knows what is to our benefit and what is not. That’s why communities that disregard this principle by mismanaging human waste invite unnecessary disease and death.

Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you (Deuteronomy 23:24; ESV).

I know these toys and games don’t include real poop, so what’s the big deal? Pooped-themed entertainment is just funny, right? I get it. Taking a normally private and disgusting aspect of life and treating it in such a casual fashion is humorous. But I don’t think we fully understand what’s going on with such a phenomenon.

The reason why poop toys and games are funny is because of the symbolic nature of things. Obviously no one wants a candy dispenser with the real thing on the top (as opposed to this). But what makes it funny depends on what it represents. It’s that it is an image of poop that gets the response. Leveraging waste products as entertainment takes that which is naturally shameful and normalizes it. By making public and open that which is supposed to be private and hidden, we desensitize ourselves to the fact that there is an objective difference between them. Our society increasingly blurs the elements of life as if God-designed distinctives are irrelevant if not illusionary. Right and wrong, good and bad, are viewed as nothing more than personal preferences. Since, as people increasingly think, there are no objective standards of goodness, people shouldn’t be prevented from doing whatever they want with whatever they want. Usually this is modified by “as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” but unless we know how to differentiate the inherent nature of things, we won’t be able to discern potential harm.

If these toys and games are more than just a passing fad, it will be “interesting” to see how the love of the poop emoji affects hitherto sanitary societies. For example it might become far more difficult to teach toddlers not to play with their “stuff.” And that’s only the beginning. There’s no telling what a generation that embraces poop will play with next.

Singing in a Foreign Land

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalms 137:4)

A wonderful string quartet serenaded us over dinner at this month’s St. Timothy’s Classical Academy Starry Night Gala (apologies to the fourth member hidden from view!).

As you may be aware, I am the part-time Bible teacher at St. Timothy’s Classical Academy in Ottawa. I am in my fourth year of developing and teaching the Bible class to grades five through eight. Apparently the school leadership deemed me to be the best candidate to MC their first-ever gala fundraiser dinner. Speaking in front of people, I understand. MC a gala! Of that I am not too sure. My first thought upon being asked was, “But I don’t have a tux!” It turned out the attire wasn’t as “gala” as that, which is fine given my lowly station in life.

Because I can talk in front of crowds, people think I can talk in front of any kind of crowd, I guess. After the fact, I am glad to report that it went really well. I am extra glad, since I believe St. Timothy’s is worthy of support given its commitment to the classical values of goodness, truth, and beauty, all built on a strong Christian foundation.

In keeping with the values of the school, one of the presentations was an a cappella choral ensemble made up of mainly alumni. The young people sang a most beautiful selection of serious songs, but that’s not why I am sharing this with you.

The event was in a banquet hall, the kind that can accommodate two groups at a time with the use of a moveable wall. On the other side of the wall was a party, a very loud party. To be fair, for the most part, we could hardly hear the other crowd. What did strongly emanate from their side was the bass. As our choral ensemble was serenading the classical tastes of the patronage on our side, we were being assaulted by an incessant “boom, ba-boom, boom ba-boom, boom, boom, boom, etc.”

As I watched and listened, trying not to be distracted by this invasion of low frequencies, I was in awe for two reasons. First, in spite of being under an acoustic attack, the choral group kept on keeping on. And they did so without losing their rhythm or tone. The more they sang, the more I was amazed. Then, I really saw what was going on. What was happening before my eyes and ears was a demonstration of what St. Timothy’s is all about.

When we think of an alternative educational institution such as St. Timothy’s, we may think in terms of it being an escape from the outside world. Our own ten children have been homeschooled. Perhaps for some, such approaches are indeed regarded as enclaves, fortresses of protection from what we perceive to be malevolent societal forces. But that’s not how we have seen our homeschooling nor is that what St. Timothy’s is. What it is was illustrated by the choral ensemble.

The prevailing culture is bold and brash. Its intent is to pull the hearts and minds of people, young people in particular, down its selfish and destructive anti-family, inhuman path. It seeks to drown out dissent through blaring propaganda, promising unending pleasure, but delivering alienation and despair. In the midst of this darkness we, like the choral ensemble, are called to faithfully sing the sounds of heaven on earth. We are called by God to articulate his goodness, truth, and beauty undistracted by the clamor of the culture. As we do, by God’s grace, we will make the difference we have been designed to make.

While parents should protect their children from true spiritual and physical danger, the goal of their education isn’t to protect them as much as it is to equip them to fill the world around them with the sounds of God. Let us, together with our children, sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.

*     *     *

My experience with the choral group was near the part of the evening when I was to encourage the guests at the gala to consider giving to the school. What I saw through these young people provoked me to give a much more impassioned plea than originally planned. At that moment the essentiality of the mission of St. Timothy’s was absolutely clear to me, and I did my best to convey that.

For more information about St. Timothy’s Classical Academy, click here.