Progress, but in What Direction?


Phillips Cassette Recorder, 1963

Phillips Cassette Recorder, 1963

I have always been fascinated by the latest innovations. Perhaps I got this from my father. I remember being one of the first people I knew with a Phillips cassette recorder, introduced in 1963. I also remember how fascinated I was by computerized tic tac toe at the Bell Telephone pavilion at Expos 67. Gaming has sure changed since then. The same pavilion also had a demonstration of an AT&T picturephone, where you talked to a person in the next room on a phone while seeing their

Bell Telephone Pavilion, Expo 67, Montreal

Bell Telephone Pavilion, Expo 67, Montreal

black and white image on a small screen. It took much longer than we expected for such a thing to become mainstream, though we didn’t expect we’d be doing so on pocket-sized devices millions of times more powerful than the Apollo 11 guidance computers. We have certainly seen many innovations come and go in the past decades.

AT&T Picturephone videophone, 1969

AT&T Picturephone videophone, 1969

Technological innovation is a byproduct of progress. Progress is something we take for granted, but it’s actually philosophically rooted in in eighteenth century thought. Philosophical progress is the notion that human beings are getting better and better over time. This concept flourished in the nineteenth century but was rejected by many in the subsequent century with its two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the nuclear bomb (see

I am not convinced that philosophical progress has been completely rejected. It

Will the Future Be Human? - Yuval Harari, World Economic Forum, January 2018

Will the Future Be Human? – Yuval Harari, World Economic Forum, January 2018

certainly didn’t put the brakes on technological progress. Far from it! The motto of technological progress appears to be, “if you can do it, do it.” Where we are at today technologically may very soon be considered as nothing compared to what is coming. For example, some think that transhumanism, the combination of people and technology, will be the next leap in human evolution (

Cover of Gift of the Jews by Thomas CahillIn early times humans took for granted that existence was cyclical. Not only were humans not progressing, there was no sense of development whatsoever. Just like the seasons of the year come and go, all life humanity included, simply repeated itself in an endless cycle. Not so in Jewish thought, however. As documented in Thomas Cahill’s 1998 book “The Gifts of the Jews,” the Jewish people through the Scriptures introduced to the world the idea of human history as something that is actually moving forward in a purposeful direction. I like to summarize the Bible’s basic storyline as God’s rescue operation of creation. The Jewish idea of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world), is the biblically derived call to join God in this.

While life itself isn’t a meaninglessly cycle, there is a cyclical component to it. This is especially reflected in the Jewish High Holidays. As described most fully in the third book of the Torah, Vayikra/Leviticus, chapter 23, the three festivals of this time of year are a progression in themselves. Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is a day of remembrance marked by the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn). This begins a ten-day period of reflection culminating in the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kipper/the Day of Atonement, a time of national humility and repentance. Then, five days later is the week-long harvest thanksgiving festival, Sukkot or Booths. The progression here is that the shofar calls us to stop from the busy-ness of the season and remember what life is really all about. This prepares us to make ourselves right with God and others. Only then are we in a position to express gratitude for our blessings.

Despite the moving forward of history, the High Holidays give us the opportunity to stop and recalibrate our lives. We think we keep improving as we supposedly progress toward the future, but have we? Or have we done nothing more than be molded by popular thought? As the struggles and disappointments of the years pile up, how often have we chosen to soothe self over doing what is right?

Maurycy Gottlieb. Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. Vienna. 1878

Maurycy Gottlieb. Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur. Vienna. 1878

Many can testify that simply going through the motions of the high holidays doesn’t necessarily ensure that we have effectively examined ourselves. Some of us don’t want to. We may be too afraid to discover what is really inside us.

In the heritage of our people, forgotten by many if not most, is a divine resource available to help us through this process. The Master of the Universe is actually keener than we are to help us recalibrate our lives. Matters of God have been so confused by the forms and rituals of humanly derived traditions. I don’t doubt that the developers of the High Holiday services were seeking to get to the heart of the matter. If the ancient liturgy is both meaningful and helpful to you, that’s great. But it seems to me, we need something more.

The past few years have seriously affected so many of us. People are discouraged and depressed. Life has become nothing more than survival. And now, we hear COVID is over maybe, but don’t count on it. Something worse is probably coming soon, not to mention the inevitability of the climate crisis. But life is meaningless anyway, right? What difference does anything make any more? Either we are heading down the path to Armageddon or falling into the precipice of absolute despair. Progress, really? Tell me about it.

I understand why it might be difficult to believe that there’s a positive plan of God working in the midst of all this. That difficulty is at least partly due to our having lived in what is perhaps the most prosperous, healthy, and peaceful period in all of history. Then, it’s as if overnight we now face inflation such as we haven’t seen in forty years, unexplained excess deaths, and the possibility of nuclear war.

The purpose of the High Holidays was never tied to how good or bad the state of the world or our personal lives might be. The act of remembering what life is really all about was designed to anchor us amidst the constantly shifting conditions of life. Scripture demonstrates that God enters into the most severe conditions of life. From the exodus to the Messiah’s resurrection, we are a people in need of rescue and to whom rescue is available. We may not be able to change the circumstances of life, but we can experience God’s rescuing power. However, we cannot do so if we insist on progressing in the wrong direction.

The biblical concept of t’shuvah, repentance, is that act of acknowledging we have been going the wrong way and deciding to turn to God. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets, the sound of the shofar at this time of year reminds us that God’s rescuing power is available to us still. The way things are is not the way they must be. It’s never too late to make necessary changes in life.

Watch Alan Gilman play the shofar by clicking on the image below:

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The Indivisible Scriptures (repost)

Note: I am reposting this article from August 2018, because it addresses one of the main reasons why I am offering my Old Testament course online this month. Register now here.

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

Feminism at Its Best

Painting of the "woman with the flow of blood" from the Duc In Altum spiritual center, Ancient Migdal, Israel

From a painting of the “woman with the flow of blood,” Duc In Altum Spiritual Center, Ancient Migdal, Israel

One of my goals on our trip to Israel last September was to see how we could tweak our next tour to make it even better than planned. One of those tweaks is the inclusion of a visit to the spiritual center and excavations in Ancient Migdal (Magdala), the home of Mary Magdalene. An Israeli friend of ours strongly recommended it. It didn’t disappoint. Situated on the north-west shore of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), it is one of the more recent such developments in Israel. It includes an excavation of a first-century synagogue along with some unique finds (see video below) as well as remnants of a market and other buildings.

We also visited the spiritual center on site, called “Duc In Altum,” taken from Jesus’ instruction to Simon Peter to “put out [their nets] into deep water, resulting in a most unexpectant, miraculous catch of fish  (Luke 5:4). We didn’t expect a place of such beautiful craftsmanship and meaning. As we entered, we walked into a circular atrium with eight pillars dedicated to various women who played a key role in Jesus’ life. Surrounding the atrium were a series of four small chapels each featuring a mosaic of a different Gospel story. Straight ahead was the much larger “Boat Chapel,” dedicated to Jesus’ preaching from the boat, the context of the catch of fish already mentioned.

The biggest and most pleasant surprise was waiting for us downstairs. The Encounter Chapel is modelled after a first century synagogue. At the front is a mural-sized painting of the story of the woman with chronic bleeding. We are not a fan of religious paintings, but we were both taken by this. No faces, but so powerful! Several people we have shown it to say they never thought about how low down the woman would have had to stoop to touch the hem of the Messiah’s garment.

My first thought while walking around the atrium upstairs was “this is feminism at its best!” Since then I have thought quite a bit about the painting and the story it represents. I don’t think we can overstate the tenacity of this woman. Lately, I have been spending considerable time in the Gospel of Mark. There we read “She had heard the reports about Jesus” (Mark 5:27). This was sufficient for her to push her way through a crowd, knowing she was ritually unclean and would contaminate every person she touched. The Gospel of Mark seems to be specially crafted to demonstrate the various reactions of all sorts of people. I am guessing this was to provoke the hearer (as most people would hear not read the book) to respond. Unlike scholars and other religious leaders who are so cautious and political around Jesus, this lady has chutzpah! Pushing her way through the crowd, she stops at nothing to get to the Messiah, even stooping to the ground (picture 1st century ground!), just for a single touch of his hem. Unlike the scholars and such, all she had to go one was “reports.” But that was good enough for her. Better than that! It was good enough for God as she was instantly healed.

People in our day tend to look askance at ancient times especially when it comes to the roles of men and women. I get the impression that many picture men sitting around on thrones, while women are subjugated as nothing more than sex objects and slaves. Perhaps many women were thus treated. But so were many men. Life for most people, both men and women, for most of history has been very difficult, full of suffering and hardship as they struggled simply to survive. In spite of that, as Ancient Migdal reminds us, there were women who found a way to make a significant, positive difference. And as we read about them, given we assume female involvement in important matters in olden days was to be discouraged, we would expect to find disparaging remarks or other comments of surprise, but we don’t.

Even if we did, I don’t know if they would care. Most people in history who have made significant contributions didn’t spend their time complaining about the injustices preventing them from doing good. Instead they looked for ways to serve God and others. The women commemorated in the atrium at Duc In Altum, are not only an example of feminism at its best; but humanity at its best.

Scriptures from the English Standard Version

Watch as Alan shows a couple of most interesting items found at the first-century synagogue excavation in Migdal (Magdala):

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.

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.