Walked and Was Not

Vigilance

“The ox knows its owner,and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” – Isaiah 1:3

“One who [fails to examine his actions and repent] — is more lowly than even the animals and beasts — whose instinct it is to protect themselves — and who therefore flee and attempt to escape from anything that they perceive as potentially harmful to them.” – from Mesillas Yesharim (The Way of the Upright)

At the end of last year (by the Jewish Calendar) I set some goals for myself. I began two courses of study and I began a daily meditation and journalling practice in the tradition of Mussar. Mussar is a jewish practice that emphasizes ethics and holiness. The idea is to concentrate on a single concept every week for thirteen weeks, with the cycle repeating three more times that year. The concepts are things like patience, humility, and equanimity. However, it’s not simply about having a concept like humility in your life. Instead, it’s about finding the right balance. True humility is not arrogant, but it also understands our inherent value. True patience tarries for what is worthwhile, but does not tolerate destructive influences in our lives for a second. 

I haven’t been particularly good about maintaining my Mussar journal and meditations. It’s all too easy, when things get intense, to drop at least one thing for the sake of other things. 

But I’m beginning to think that this was a bad ball to drop. 

I was reading the Way of the Upright this week (this was posted much later) and one of the scriptures inside corresponded to the weekly Haftarah portion that is studied on the week of Tisha B’Av (the anniversary of the destruction of both temples, as well as many other horrible events). It was in that chapter that focused on Vigilance that I found a truth that resonated. 

As it says above, even the animals will run from something that threatens them. 

It’s far too easy to drift along. Even when you’re actively studying and praying. Our lives are often full of distractions and we become adept at switching gears. We look into the scriptures, then we walk away and forget what they have shown us (James 1:23-24). Or, at least, I do. 

As a result, I have resolved to work on my awareness. Not meditative awareness as it would normally be defined by our society, but more of an active awareness of the patterns in my life. I have begun building fences around my tendencies. Because I often find myself slipping back into the surface of old habits and modes of behavior. 

On this anniversary of the destruction of the temple, it’s still easy to forget that our Master’s message was one focused on extravagant repentance for the sake of the Kingdom. But if we never truly examine ourselves and see the path we’re walking clearly, I’m not sure that our lives will ever show the fruit of repentance that our Master sought out on the fig tree. 

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Hope in God. Be strong, and let Your heart be strengthened, and hope in God.

Psalm 27:14

Which is greater?

Last weekend, those who practice Judaism around the world began counting down toward the High Holidays. Beginning with the first day of the month of Elul, repentance becomes the primary focus. Lives are examined, people who may have been harmed or wronged are contacted, and changes are (hopefully) made. Each day Psalm 27 is read. Each day three other Psalms are read. On Yom Kippur the remaining Psalms are read. All of this is done so that in the next year we will live better lives. Lives that have taken on the Yoke of the Kingdom. This is in harmony with the goal of the Apostles to “hasten [His] coming…” It was during my first reading that I studied Psalm 1 and became intrigued.
In Judaism, there’s an idea about the Torah. The idea is that the Torah existed before creation. This comes from the Proverbs, because Wisdom says that she was with Him at the beginning of His work. 

However, the Torah in heaven or the spiritual realms is not the exactly the same as the one given to Moses. Instead, this is the supernal Torah, and it contains the principles and the spiritual aspects of the laws and truths that are in the earthly Torah. This is the same Torah that will be made manifest in the World to Come, when it will be inscribed on every man’s heart (Jeremiah and Ezekiel write about this when they speak of the New Covenant, as does Moses).

The Torah of earth, by contrast, had to be constrained to be contained in this physical realm. It became different because of its purpose, but still contained the same essence.

In the Psalms, it says that a righteous man’s “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night…” (Psalms 1:2). The verse mentions the “law of the Lord” and it mentions “his law”. According to the sages, the “law of the Lord” is the supernal Torah. “His law”, on the other hand, refers to the law that the righteous man has taken as his own, the earthly Torah. 

They then ask the question, which is greater?

You would think that would be obvious. It would seem that the supernal Torah would be much greater, since it’s unconstrained.

However, that is not the answer that they give. Instead, they say that the earthly Torah is greater. This is because it is still the Word of God, and, as such, contains all of this truth and power, but it has been miraculously imparted to the physical realm for us. This is a miracle that seems impossible when you truly consider it. 

In the same way, the incarnation of our Messiah, the Word made flesh, is a profound miracle beyond what can be understood. In some small way, this helps us understand the process of his glorification.

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In This Life

The following is taken from a discussion with a friend where we considered exactly what sort of changes we should expect to see in our lives as Christians:
…It seems like this may be a point where metal grinds on metal in our comparative belief systems. With that in mind, I’ll say that this is something I still struggle to understand. I don’t think that I, in general, believe in complete sanctification as a sort of experiential plateau or milestone in the Christian walk. Interacting with Nazarenes a lot in the past, it always fascinated me because this concept seemed, in their view, to correspond in some ways to the way Pentecostals felt about Tongues. I can’t completely rule it out on at least a individual basis for the same reasons you mention — sovereignty and miracles.

However, I do believe in the possibility of besetting sins being overcome in a victorious way as the gradual result of a Christian walk. I believe in the sort of thing that can produce testimonies for the encouragement of those who struggle. Encouragement beyond just saying, “you’ll also struggle but you can make it.”

I believe this partially because I feel that I have to. My experience with habitual sin is that it was impossible stay where I was — I descended. I feel this really strongly… that there’s a de-evolution that occurs. That we become more like beasts. I’d hate to see what another 40 years would do. I won’t see what another 40 years will do. I can’t stand around and wait for that spirit to bring seven more like him back to the party.

Fear and experience by themselves, however, are usually a bad theological platform. I heard a guy dismiss the idea of a millennial reign by saying that the verses people use are all metaphors, but then he made a comment that he couldn’t accept that his father would be brought back to an imperfect point in time before the greater transformation of heaven and earth. You could really tell that it was the root of his motivation for such reasoning. Simple dislike of the idea. We’re all susceptible to such things.

So I also have to deal with the text of the Bible, which doesn’t always seem to support the very permissive reading that we modern christians find so comforting. Discussions like this are rarely comfortable, so forgive me for that.

There are a lot of places I could start. The obvious would be with James, the brother of our master, stating that faith and faithfulness can’t be separated, that double mindedness is madness, that those who don’t control their tongue are deceived with a worthless religion, to avoid anger because it doesn’t produce the kind of righteousness that God desires, etc.

Then there’s John. John perplexes people when he says that those who say they know Christ but don’t keep His commands are liars, that whoever claims to live in Christ must live as Jesus did, that whoever does the will of God lives forever (with the implication that those who do the opposite do not), and that, since Christ is righteous, everyone that does what is right has been born of him.

And then we come to the book of Hebrews, which I can’t seem to quit referencing. That book used to scare me as a child and as a teen, with the text describing all sorts of peril for my eternal destiny. It still makes me humble and fearful before God (however unpopular that very New Testament idea might be). Chapter 12 comes to the heart of what we were talking about and throws in a few extra scary things for good measure. He starts out by stating that we should throw off those besetting sins and encourages his readers to remember that we haven’t been tested to our limits:

“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,

because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!” Hebrews 12:4-9

First of all, after reading that we know that chastening is an indication that we are His children. This implies that it simply must happen in the life of a Christian. Second, that we should submit to it so that we can live. That’s a slippery word – live – you might argue that it just means that your life will be better, so:

“They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” v 10-11

Sharing in holiness, and a harvest of righteousness and peace seem to be the effective result of the chastening that all Christians should expect. Apparently God does have some criteria for what He thinks is better, otherwise, in my view, chastening would only prove that we’re the children of an abusive father (and some would say an unworthy God). Which brings to mind Tevye saying, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

I’ll be honest. When I talk about this I don’t have other people in mind. I have myself in mind. Maybe that makes this all about me, introverted and self-interested. But if I was going to answer your question, I’d have to say that, at least when I’m in my right mind, I don’t find any sin to be harmless anymore. No matter whether it’s not hurting anyone else or not. I’m not saying that in a condemning way, I’m saying that God sees the tragedy and damage that sin creates in our lives and He doesn’t even need to look at the collateral damage to others or the offense to Himself in order to desire change in us with His entire being. The goal is to remove the parasite from our lives and to teach us not to pick it up again. We shouldn’t be deceived, what we sow, we will reap. I believe that God’s commandments and His chastening are to teach us to plant better things. This is why Jesus said over and over, “If you would have treasure in heaven, do this.” He wasn’t talking about salvation, if he had been, then Jesus would have been a legalist.

Then in v 14-17, a warning:

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.”

It all comes back to that old question, “How then shall we live?” The answer here seems to be that we should live righteous lives. I’ll leave those here for consideration, but I wanted to note that the root of bitterness is an idea from Deuteronomy 29:18. It’s a conceit that believes my own sin will be overlooked simply because I’m a part of the covenant. There are so many things in those four verses that should make us radically rethink our view of repentance and sin.

It’s hard to answer such a broad but foundational question without weeks of study and discussion. Hopefully that didn’t come off as some grand altar call or condemnation. I just want to examine such things carefully, with a lot of self-critical evaluation of how my beliefs stack up to the text and not a small amount of fear towards God.

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“[The New Jerusalem descending] …is the ultimate rejection of all types of Gnosticism, of every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven. It is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. It is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 1:10, that God’s design, and promise, was to sum up all things in Christ, things both in heaven and on earth. It is the final fulfillment, in richly symbolic imagery, of the promise of Genesis 1, that the creation of male and female would together reflect God’s image in the world. And it is the final accomplishment of God’s great design, to defeat and abolish death forever—which can only mean the rescue of creation from its present plight of decay.”

Excerpt From: N. T. Wright. “Surprised by Hope.” HarperCollins. iBooks.
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“What we say about death and resurrection gives shape and color to everything else. If we are not careful, we will offer merely a “hope” that is no longer a surprise, no longer able to transform lives and communities in the present, no longer generated by the resurrection of Jesus himself and looking forward to the promised new heavens and new earth.”

Excerpt From: N. T. Wright. “Surprised by Hope.” HarperCollins. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

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This is the second round of Christmas/Hanukkah book purchases (just delivered). These include Jeremiah/Lamentations, Koheles (Ecclesiastes), and Yechezkel (Ezekiel). The really cool and unexpected thing (or uncool depending on your theology) is that Ezekiel includes a detailed diagram/illustration of the Third Temple. =)