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.

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.

The Bible: Faith’s Basis

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that the Messiah (ESV: Christ) died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Does your faith depend on the Bible? Or does it depend on God? Is it believing in the Bible that makes someone right with God? Or is salvation the result of believing in Yeshua (Jesus)? I think even the most biblically impassioned would say their faith is in God, that their reconciliation is based upon what Yeshua did for them through his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead. While the Bible documents what God has done, it’s not faith in the Bible that saves us, but the faith to which the Bible testifies.

Does it follow then that our faith is not based on the Bible? A reasonable conclusion, no? Scholar N.T. Wright in his book “Scripture and the Authority of God” makes a good case for Scripture’s authority being understood as God’s authority exercised through Scripture. In other words, the Bible’s authority isn’t in and of itself. It has authority, but only as it is an expression of God’s authority.

I can see why some people would want to correct what they perceive to be an unhealthy overemphasis on Scripture. Obviously, the Bible isn’t God or a god. Without a vibrant, humble, and dynamic relationship to the God of the Bible, it can easily become an idol. Yeshua’s charge of hypocrisy on the part of some of the religious leaders of his day demonstrates how we can get wrapped up with Scripture, all the while being disconnected from the God whom it reveals. It’s so easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are being true to Scripture and yet have little or no connection to the one who inspired it.

But can we have authentic connection with God apart from Scripture? Yeshua didn’t seem to think so. After his resurrection, he joined two despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus incognito. We might think the key to convincing them of his identity would have been to show them that he had come back from the dead, but that’s not what he did. Instead he said to them:

“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:25-27).

The Messiah deemed it necessary to instruct his followers in the Scriptures first before revealing himself as the resurrected Lord. His resurrection was essential, but only within the context of Scripture.

Paul concurs as he states that both Yeshua’s death and resurrection were “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Without the Scriptures, meaning the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament), Yeshua’s resurrection is a paranormal phenomenon open to interpretation. Yes, five hundred plus people claimed to see him after he died (see 1 Corinthians 15:6), and there is good reason to regard their testimony (as documented in Scripture) as valid. But what it all means is not self-evident. The implications can only be understood via God’s written revelation. Without the Scripture, the resurrection is no basis for faith. What the resurrection does is confirm Scripture. The Jewish Bible was already true; the resurrection fulfills its anticipation, taking that truth to the next level in its historical development for both its original audience and the rest of the world.

So, while the resurrection confirms Scripture, our faith is based on the Bible after all. By the time the Hebrew Scriptures were completed, God had instilled in the Jewish people an understanding of God and life, which included their anticipation of a coming deliverer (aka “the Messiah”). The road to Emmaus was not the first time Yeshua appealed to Scriptural authority as the basis for who he was and what he was doing. Throughout his life, he lived according to its precepts and fulfilled its expectations. He understood like no other that these writings were endowed with his Father’s authority. Following his ascension to heaven, his Jewish followers continued to base their teaching on Scripture.

Seeking to base our faith on God and what he has done outside the bounds of Scripture not only leaves the Bible unnecessarily vulnerable to abuse, but also everything the Bible teaches, including God himself. This may seem overly reactive, but that’s only because at first such an approach appears to be a genuine reflection of God’s truth as revealed by Scripture. Yet once the biblical moorings are cut, it isn’t long before the content of our faith becomes skewed beyond recognition, and we find ourselves shipwrecked along with every other man-made attempt to remake God in our own image.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

How to Teach the Bible to Children Even When It Is Complex

 School kids raising hands in classroom

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By Alan Gilman. Originally posted on the Gospel Coalition website (Canadian Edition), July 16, 2018.

While preparing to teach a Bible class at a small Christian classical academy, I encountered a sticky theological and philosophical issue, which I thought it best to avoid. These are only children after all. They can only handle so much, right? But as we read one of the passages that included the issue, which I was trying to avoid, a sixth-grade student raised their hand: “What does it mean that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart?”

I took a deep breath. How does one explain a biblical statement with significant implications regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility—something theologians and philosophers have grappled with for centuries and still do? I shared with the class that there are also references to Pharaoh’s hardening his own heart, that there appears to be an interplay between Pharaoh’s stubbornness and God’s response to it. Whatever I said and however I said, it seemed to satisfy the student and the class (at least for the time being).

I share this story to show that children can handle complex concepts when given the opportunity. They are often more able to learn more than we give them credit for. In light of this, I want to share a few thoughts on teaching children the Bible and complex theological concepts.

Don’t Assume They Won’t Understand

In the mid-70s, I first encountered the ability of young people to grapple with deep theological concepts. I was a fairly new believer, and I was working at a large Jewish camp in Quebec. It wasn’t a religiously oriented camp, but we did have special programming on the Sabbath. I was still a relative novice regarding the Bible, but I’d become somewhat familiar with its contents pretty quickly. One Saturday morning I helped organize discussion groups where the children rotated from room to room for presentations and short discussions with a spiritual theme. I had found a book for children that covered some key Bible characters. I don’t remember why I chose the section on Job, but I was amazed at how keen the children were to discuss the issue of unjust suffering.

Years later, I played a taped lecture for my own children (the oldest was 16) by Cambridge University theologian and musicologist Jeremy Begbie. The lecture spoke on how particular aspects of music can uniquely illustrate important theological concepts. Not only did my kids understand it, they loved it!

I did, however, have to pause the recording and explain what Begbie was saying. Vocabulary choice and specialized technical terminology can be an obstacle at any age. But once the unfamiliar words were explained, my children grasped and retained the teaching. I am not saying that all children can grasp a high level of complexity, but the assumption that they necessarily require simplicity is unfounded.

Accessible Does Not Mean Easy

Our own general approach to the Bible as adults plays a part in how we oversimplify Scripture in order for children to understand its precepts. The Protestant Reformation provided a much-needed correction with regard to the individual’s relationship to the Bible: it was rightly understood that every believer should have unfettered access to Scripture.

But wresting control of biblical understanding from church leaders, thus providing large-scale accessibility of the Scriptures to the masses, doesn’t make the Bible easy to understand. Yet that appears to be what a lot of people expect. They think, if we can sufficiently understand the Bible without formal theological training, then understanding it must be easy-peasy. But that’s not a logical conclusion. Ability to do something doesn’t imply that it’s easy to do.

Do the Hard Work of Exploring Theology

If we allow ourselves to be honest about the Bible, we might accept that much of it is difficult to understand. Tragically, we too often cope with the difficulty by oversimplifying our theology. Preachers can succumb to the temptation of portraying themselves as biblical experts, reducing multidimensional, ambiguous, nuanced stories into moralistic, formulaic sayings. If anything, the Bible repeatedly forces us to stop and think, inviting us to ponder and plumb its depths.

Does this mean that understanding the Bible is only for highly trained professionals? No, the problem isn’t our inability to understand the Scriptures’ complexities, but that we are too easy on ourselves, insisting that it be simple when it is not. Proverbs 2 encourages us to seek for wisdom as hidden treasure. That’s back-breaking, difficult, and sometimes confusing work, but it’s worth it and it’s doable.

When I teach the Bible to adults, I am aware that many are used to simple teaching. But that doesn’t stop me from exposing them to its grand vistas and unsearchable depths. I am careful to explain my terminology but confident that human beings made in God’s image and indwelt by the Holy Spirit are more than able to grasp the intricacies of theological complexity when given the chance.

If children can, so can you. To help children plumb the depths of Scripture, we need to first take the time to ponder, not just read. It can be surprising how much more we can get out of our reading by taking time to think it over.

Don’t neglect the author. Pray for God’s illumination before, during, and after you read. As you are able, set extra time aside to study passages of interest or difficulty. After you have prayerfully searched the Scriptures, look up what others have written. If you are not theologically trained, you can ask someone to point you to reliable resources. The more you grapple with the complexity of Scripture, the better you will be able to draw your children into the vastness of God’s revelation.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

The Indivisible Scriptures

Hebrew and Greek biblical manuscripts side by side

Hebrew & Greek biblical manuscripts

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Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35)

This past spring, popular megaplex church leader, Andy Stanley, presented a three-part sermon series, entitled “Aftermath,” described on his church’s website as: “Jesus’ resurrection launched a series of events that introduced the world to his new covenant and new hope. But old ways don’t easily give way. Not then. Not now.” In part three of the series  Stanley claims that the early Jewish believers called for a sharp disconnect between the fledgling New Covenant community and the Hebrew Scriptures. Much can be said to critique Stanley’s approach and many of his specific statements, but what I wish to demonstrate here is that his attempt to undermine the ongoing authority of the whole Bible is not new. From the ancient heretic Marcion, who claimed the New Testament “god” was different from the Old Testament “god” to the Nazi-inspired “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life” to Andy Stanley’s attempt to make Christianity “irresistible,” there have been all sorts of intentional schemes to tear the Hebrew Scriptures away from Christianity. While many believers immediately reject such anti-biblical ideologies, you may be surprised to discover how common negative views of the Old Testament really are.

Two gods?

Do you find how God is depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures overly harsh? If so, you may be further along the road to Marcionism than you may realize. Refusal to accept that the God who commanded Joshua to exterminate the nations of Canaan is the same God who through Jesus blessed little children and offers you forgiveness, then you may actually believe in two (non-existent) gods. The one God of the entire Bible may be difficult to understand, but not impossible. God himself succinctly expressed his complex and integrated character to Moses:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)

“Merciful and gracious… but who will by no means clear the guilty.” God is both merciful and just. From Genesis to Revelation, God is always and forever consistent with himself.

Breaking an essential bond

We break the connection between Old and New Testaments every time we create illegitimate contrasts between them. For example, when Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said to those of old” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43), are taken to mean “You have heard that it was written to those of old,” that assumes that Jesus is contradicting, not interpreting, Moses. Is not twisting “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (Torah) or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17) into abolishing the Torah and the Prophets an attempt to unhitch the New from the Old? And this is in spite of what Jesus says in the second half of that same verse: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”? “Fulfill” here cannot mean “to put an end to.” Rather, it indicates Jesus’s intention to demonstrate bringing the Hebrew Scriptures to their fulness by truly living them out and to equip others to do the same.

This would be a good place for me to clarify that there are indeed contrasts between the Testaments. How Scripture is to be understood and applied must be in light of our living in the Messianic age – these days of the New Covenant since Jesus’s coming. The Levitical sacrificial system is no longer in force nor is the Israelite theocracy, even though the sacrifice of the Messiah and his kingly role are central. The homogeneous makeup of Israel as the people of God has been extended to the ingrafting of the nations without the need of initiation rites. Yet this reconstitution of God’s covenant relationship to his people should not lead us to assume a casting away of the foundational function of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the unconditional, eternal promises to Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But doesn’t John chapter one, verse seventeen, for example, distance the New Testament from the Old? It reads: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” This wording is found in the King James Bible and many other, though not all, popular English versions. But the “but” isn’t in the Greek. It was added in these translations, because the translators deemed it to be implied. The problem is that the implication may be more due to prejudice towards the Hebrew Scriptures than sound scholarship.

The addition of “but” in this verse fuels the law vs. grace false dichotomy. Christians have often taken Paul’s insistence on faith being the sole basis of God’s acceptance as necessarily devaluing the books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul was certainly concerned about an aspect of rabbinic teaching that regarded the embracing of Torah, not faith, as the sign of genuine covenant relationship with God. According to this traditional view, only born Jews and converts to Judaism can truly fulfill that role. The New Covenant opens the door to non-Jews to find full acceptance by God outside of the community of Israel. The term “law” in such contexts is a reference to the rabbinic system they erroneously assumed to be based on Torah, rather than the contents of the Books of Moses themselves.

Grace isn’t an exclusively New Covenant concept. Paul demonstrates that right relationship with God has always been established on the basis of grace through faith. The term, “grace,” is to be understood as God’s enabling power freely given to those who trust him, as reflected through all those who have been faithful to him from Abel onwards. The  contrast between Moses and Jesus in John 1:17 is one of degree and application, hearkening back to Jesus’s words from Matthew about “fulfillment.” Grace doesn’t nullify the essential role of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the contrary, we can’t fully understand grace apart from it. Through Jesus the satanic oppression of sin is broken, thus enabling anyone anywhere to know the God of Israel and be filled with his Spirit. What was experienced by a few in a relatively small region of the world is now accessible to all everywhere through the New Covenant.

The Law as negative

Another way some disconnect the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament is even though they passionately value God’s Law, they do so only in a negative sense by focusing exclusively on how it demonstrates our need for God. Doesn’t Paul make a case for this?

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)

The Torah’s function in illuminating the human sin problem is core, but is that it? Is this all that’s behind these words from Paul to Timothy?

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).

Are we made “complete” (meaning “mature”) and “equipped for every good work” by the Hebrew Scriptures showing us nothing but how sinful we are? You might think that’s why Paul told the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13) that Israel’s failure in the wilderness should act as an example – a bad example – to them. If so, you may have negative prejudicial glasses on. Israel did act badly. But how do we know this was ungodly behavior except that the Books of Moses plus commentary from the Psalms inform us of such? Paul’s goal for the Corinthians wasn’t only that they wouldn’t follow the bad example. It was that they would act in the desired godly manner as revealed in these Torah stories. The effectiveness of these examples is that they reflect the reality of life and God’s will regardless of the time period.

This is what Paul is talking about when he reminds Timothy that “all Scripture” is essential for godly living – “all Scripture” meaning, as it did in the entire early church, the Hebrew Bible, since there was no New Testament yet. Not only did Paul regard the Hebrew Scriptures as effective, they were also sufficient. This may be difficult for many Christians to accept, due to how much they are ignored, with or without the negative sentiments I have outlined. This in no way downplays the inspiration and authority of the New Testament. Rather it emphasizes how foundational and effective the Hebrew Scriptures were (and should still be) for believers.

The “Old” Testament

Then there’s the title itself, “the Old Testament.” You likely have never thought about how this way of referring to it devalues it. First, Old rather than New automatically sounds negative to modern ears as in “Tired of the same Old Testament? Try the new and improved one!” Of course, that might be due to we moderns’ overly positive take on progress. Be that as it may, it doesn’t accurately describe this sacred collection. It’s misleading, in fact. While the Old Covenant (“testament” being another word for “covenant”) given through Moses at Mt. Sinai plays a central role in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s revelation of truth in these writings isn’t limited to the covenantal arrangement itself.

There are obvious passages that are outside of the Sinai covenant. All of Genesis through Exodus chapter nineteen precede it. The Book of Job doesn’t have covenantal references nor do some of the prophetic messages given to non-Jewish nations. Even within the narrative context of the Sinai covenant itself and its specific directives (commandments), we discover universal truths about God and life that both predate and outlive it. This is why I prefer to use the term, “Hebrew Scriptures.”

The New Testament’s dependency on the Hebrew Scriptures

Finally, contrary to popular misconception, the New Testament doesn’t stand on its own. This is not to say that it can’t or should never be read on its own. It’s that it understands itself as being based on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not only is it filled with hundreds of direct quotes from, and allusions to, the older writings, the concepts of God, righteousness, sin, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, Messiah, the Holy Spirit, and on and on, are all deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. To read the New Testament apart from its scriptural context is to leave it open to great abuse and manipulation. To unhitch the Hebrew Scriptures from our faith is to cut ourselves loose from God himself.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Weather Changers

The words, "Extreme Weather Warning" superimposed upon a thermometer and an golden sky

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It’s getting hot in more ways than one. After an unusually cool beginning to our summer, the Ottawa area, where I live, is about to be engulfed by a significant heat wave. The anticipated temperature for our national holiday, Canada Day, this Sunday, July 1, is 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit). That’s high enough. But with the humidity, it may feel more like an all-time record-breaking 47 C (116.6 F)!

Such heat can be very oppressive. No energy. No motivation. It’s nearly impossible to think.

Also oppressively hot is the current social environmental condition. With yet another setback against religious freedom in Canada earlier this month when our supreme court decided against Trinity Western University, the heat of secularization continues to melt the traditional values that undergirds Canadian society. Certainly, a liberal culture claiming to celebrate diversity would have even a bit of room for an excellent, well-established and distinctly Christian educational institution to train lawyers. But no, a different kind of diversity prevails. One that enforces a new morality of sexual expression intolerant of biblical values.

The normal response to a heat way is escape. Hunker down. Stay cool until it passes. But is this how God wants us to respond to the growing encroachment of government forces? Just wait for the weather to change?

And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. (Matthew 8:25-26; ESV)

What would you think if I told you that God calls us to be weather changers? Am I stretching the metaphor beyond reasonable limits? Think about it. Are we not followers of the great Weather Changer himself? Remember the disciples in the boat, thinking they are about to die by drowning due to a massive storm, while the Master was asleep in the back? Several of them were weather experts, being fishermen. Based on conventional wisdom, they weren’t overreacting. They were finished as far as they were concerned. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus (or “Yeshua” as they would have called him) completely changed their environment. He didn’t simply hold off the devastating effects of the extreme weather event. The result was a complete positive transformation  – “a great calm” (Matthew 8:26).

This story is designed to encourage us to confront extreme weather – not so much about the impending heat wave. Better than that! We are reminded that when we are in the boat of life with the Messiah, we are not to view ourselves as victims of our environment, praying for nothing more than survival. We are to be weather changers.

Following Simon Peter’s confident declaration of Yeshua’s messianic identity, Yeshua said “I will build my kehillah (English: assembly, congregation, church) , and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Gets pretty hot the closer you get to Hell. But once we are assured that Hell won’t win, we can relentlessly storm its gates.

If we are overwhelmed by the heat, we may find ourselves like the disciples in the boat, thinking it’s all over. Yeshua may not be sleeping, but he may as well be, given how things are going. But when was the last time you sought to arouse him, allowing him to size up the situation, and watch him do the impossible? That won’t happen as long as you think Hell is winning.

While I am not looking forward to the weekend weather, it will pass. As for the current social climate, that’s another thing. Hell’s heat isn’t going to dissipate on its own. By prayer and his Word, God has given us what we need to refresh a sweltering oppressive culture.

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