the nearness of God in the pressures of life

Come near to God and he will come near to you.

But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.

Scripture is full of promises of God’s presence with his people. Especially in terms of living in the darkest most difficult places of life. God has made it so we need each other. But all of us together need God. God not only gives us physical life, but a life worth living. In a true sense that is given to all by creation. In new creation God’s original intention for humankind is restored and then some.

When I consider the challenges of life that are on me and what lies just ahead I realize more and more how I simply need God and God’s nearness. It is easy to simply wish to escape and we can do so in all sorts of ways. Instead we need to learn to draw upon our life in God through Jesus by simply coming near to him, asking God to come near to us, to be very close to us, to be our life and our very breath spiritually speaking.

Will life get easier as a result? Prayer can make a difference and walking with God will mean we’ll be much more in prayer. But circumstances may not be any better. We will simply have a new center so to speak from which to approach them. Which will help us to look for and actually see God’s hand and not just the troubles of this life. Actually living in God ourselves in a more conscious way, as we continue to seek his nearness in our lives in and through Jesus.

Lois Tverberg on the Shema being a call to (or oath of) allegiance rather than a creed to be recited

Echad—The One and Only

The other key word in the first line of the Shema is echad (ech-HAHD). Its most common meaning is simply “one,” but it can also encompass related ideas, like being single, alone, unique, or unified. The multiple shades of meaning of echad and the difficult wording of the rest of the line have made the Shema a topic of debate for millennia.

Part of the problem is that Deuteronomy 6:4 doesn’t even have verbs. It literally reads: “YHWH … our God … YHWH … one.” The verse can be read either as saying “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,” or “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Of these two readings, the more common reading is the second, that “the LORD is one” in the sense that God is unique. There is only one God, the God of Israel. So this line is usually understood as a statement of belief in monotheism.

The word echad has been a sticking point between Jews and Christians. Often Jews point to the fact that it means “one” as a reason that they cannot believe in the Trinity or in the deity of Christ. And Christians respond that echad can refer to a compound unity, as when God created morning and evening, and together they made yom echad (“one day) (cf. Genesis 1:5). Or when Adam and Eve, through marriage, became basar echad (“one flesh”) (Genesis 2:24).

This whole debate hinges on interpreting the Shema as a creed; that is, “the LORD is one” is a statement about what kind of being God is. But, interestingly, one of the most widely-read Jewish Bible translations now renders Deuteronomy 6:4 as “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” rather than “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” It does so because in recent decades, scholars have come to believe that the original, ancient sense of echad in this verse was more likely to be “alone” than “one.” In Zechariah 14:9, for instance, echad has this sense: “The LORD will be king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be echad and his name echad” (pers. trans.). This is a vision of the messianic age, when all humanity will cease to worship idols and revere only God and call on his name alone.

Jewish scholar Jeffrey Tigray asserts that even though the Scriptures clearly preach monotheism, the Shema itself is not a statement of belief. It’s an oath of loyalty. He calls the first line of the Shema “a description of the proper relationship between YHVH and Israel: He alone is Israel’s God. This is not a declaration of monotheism, meaning that there is only one God…. Though other peoples worship various beings and things they consider divine, Israel is to recognize YHVH alone.”

Why is this important? Because it changes the sense of what the Shema communicates. Rather than merely being a command to a particular belief about God, it is actually a call for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship; him only shall we serve. As often as the Shema is called a creed or a prayer, it is better understood as an oath of allegiance, a twice-daily recommitment to the covenant with the God of Israel.

As Western Christians we are used to reciting creeds and statements of belief in order to define our faith. We expect to find one here too. So we easily could easily misunderstand that Jesus was saying that it is extremely critical that we believe in God’s “oneness.” But when properly understood, this line shows that the greatest commandment is actually a call to commit ourselves to the one true God.

Reading the line this way solves another mystery about what Jesus was saying. If he was asked what the greatest commandment was, why does he begin by quoting a line about God being “one”? Because if you read this line as about committing  oneself to God as one’s Lord, it flows directly into the next line in the Shema, explaining why we should love God with every fiber of our being. If the Lord alone is our God, and we worship no other gods, we can love him with all of our heart and soul and strength. The two sentences together become one commandment, the greatest in fact—to love the Lord our God.

Once again, in the light of their Hebrew context, we find that Jesus’ words call us beyond what is going on in our brains. We are not just to “hear” but to take heed, to respond, to obey. And we are not just called to believe in the oneness of God, but to place him at the center of our lives.

To do that, we are to love God with all of our heart and soul and strength and mind. Each of these words, in their Hebrew context, can expand our understanding of our calling and the very essence of the Scriptures, as Jesus understood it.

Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, 38-40.

why we are to love God with ALL our being and doing (and love our neighbor as ourselves)

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Recently I was struck at the emphasis of this command,that God alone deserves our complete devotion in love in our being and doing. Lois Tverberg in her most helpful book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life put me on this track. It is suggested at least from one Jewish source that the best understanding of the Shema is that since Yahweh, or the LORD alone is God, the LORD alone deserves our full, complete devotion. And following the same thought, since our neighbor is like us (we can say, a human being made in God’s image), we’re to therefore love our neighbor as ourselves.

It is not that we are going to be perfect in this, but this should be and comprehend our life goal and passion in and through Jesus.

picking up the broken pieces

It does no good to dwell on the past and to say over and over again, “If only…” The past is the past, water under the bridge or over the dam. We can only gather up the broken pieces by prayer and waiting on God. It takes time. If it’s over the loss of a loved one, we need to go through a grieving process which will never look the same in given situations, even if having some of the same general characteristics. If it’s due to a moral failure, some sort of great sin, then we need to confess that sin in repentance before God and when necessary to others we’ve hurt as well. Under the guidance and care of our local church, submitting to their leadership and the discipline there. God does not despise a broken and contrite heart.

Although we have our part and we need to be engaged in it, strictly speaking only God can pick up the broken pieces, put them back together again and make us new or renew us in and through Jesus. We can’t do it ourselves. And yet we must be engaged in faith and patience to receive what God has promised us in and through Jesus: forgiveness, cleansing and restoration even in this life, though the scars will remain and things will be different afterward.

We can rest assured no matter what has taken place, the evil in the form of a good number of things, or the sin into which we had fallen, that God is at work in every detail for good. Yes, even in the evil and even in our sin. We can’t figure out how, and it’s especially hard when we’re in the midst of it. We can be lost, even tormented and can end up hurting ourselves and others when we try to fix things ourselves. We are involved in the process, but it is God alone who does the ongoing transformative work in and through Jesus.

We must submit to God and let him take care of it. Instead of whining and imagining something different, we need to walk through it with our Lord. Trusting in him that there will be a good outcome for our good and blessing along with the good and blessing of others, for his glory.

pray as you go (and a bit on praying in tongues)

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

There is nothing more important in life than to be in vital communion with God. A key aspect of that is prayer. We might liken prayer to exhaling in breathing. We inhale as we take in God’s voice to us through his word. And we exhale in response to that. Yes, prayer ends up being as vital as the air we breathe. We can’t get by well without it. In fact it is part of our life, becoming no less than a part of who we are.

Admittedly and all too often it seems prayer seems to be an uphill battle. We can feel prayerless, not seeming to have the ability to do it at all. Perhaps that is a time when we need to be still before God in all our brokenness and lostness.

To pray continually or without ceasing simply means that prayer is to be ongoing for us, a rule of life so to speak. It is good to pray set prayers (see the Sunday posts on this blog) along with our own expressions of worship, confession of our sin, thanksgiving and petitions to God along with other prayers (see scripture).

I have the personality or bent of never feeling like I’m ready for anything. So I have no trouble thinking that I need to be in prayer at any given time. Actually praying can be another thing. But by God’s grace it is beoming much more habitual and ingrained in me.

It is good to pray short prayers. If someone brings a concern to my attention, I want to pray a short prayer at the time. We can pray in the Spirit in a number of ways, including “tongues” (see 1 Corinthians 14). I believe every Christian can pray in that way. But you’re neither more nor less spiritual if you do or you don’t contrary to some of the teaching out there. In my case I figure I need all the help I can get, so if that avenue is open, I’ll take it. You could simply ask God to fill you with his Spirit, and then you open your mouth and begin to speak as the Spirit gives you words. The words are unintelligible and may seem to be mere gibberish. But go on. This is not spoken of in the Bible for no reason. And see the distinctions of it again in ! Corinthians 14 along with 12, Acts 2 and in other places. Sadly this has been a divisive gift and a false marking of “haves” and “have-nots.” No, you are not more spiritual if you pray in this way. The Corinthian church according to Paul lived like those without the Spirit. But neither is this gift to be despised. As to the gift of tongues for the assembly along with an interpreter, it seems like this is a gift given only here and there. Perhaps not a so-called constitutional gift but a situational gift as I think John Wimber suggested.

Life is full of difficulty and can be overwhelming, more than we can bear. That is when we need to bear our hearts to God, look to him for ourselves and for others. But through good and difficult times we need to be in prayer. As we continue in this life in Jesus.

the failure of character

A couple articles (here and here) recently have called my attention to the importance of character development. Even though giftedness is important, it ends up meaning little or nothing if the person is lacking in character.

When a line is crossed, fallout is inevitable. But what too often is not duly considered is the life which led to that failure.

Of course it is true (Luther has a point) that we are all sinners, even the righteous sin and struggle with it. And so regular confession needs to be made ideally both general in public and specific in private to God and to one’s trusted friend or pastor/priest. And we need to be open to the convicting work of the Spirit as well as to the disciplines needed to keep us from sin. The great sin is always preceded by “small” yet willful sins which all too often are excused or rationalized away so that the person ends up deceiving themselves when they actually know better.

Jesus Christ needs to be front and center and God’s gospel for us and for the world in him. When that is the case we will be regularly confronted with our sin, and fundamentally with who we are. If we’re true followers of Jesus we should indeed becoming over time more and more like him.