Doing Our Part

…Then [the king] sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.”  “Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”… Luke 19:15-17

I heard today about a girl who dreams of a career in music, and feels that God has given her as his vision of her life. But yet she is flunking her college music classes, partially because she hasn’t been buying the required books, because she wants to save money. Money is really tight and she’s going through a lot of personal issues. But yet, she’s actually retaking a class she flunked before because she didn’t buy the books. How does that save money?

What hit me is that she also has a somewhat flawed theology. I think her picture is that God is going to take her to the heights of success, and if she expends any effort, it won’t be in God’s plan. She sees her college profs who fail her as her enemies, thwarting God’s will. And she should just do nothing, waiting in faith for when her magical ship comes in. I know I’ve fallen into this kind of thinking myself.

I think Jesus’ parable of the minas addresses this. A king gave three servants a mina, which is coin weighing a pound of silver. One works very hard to use it and earns ten more. One works moderately hard and earns five more. One hates the king and sees the mina not as an opportunity but as a chore, and he buries it. When the king returns he puts the most industrious one in charge of ten cities, and the next in charge of five cities. The last must give up his mina, and it is given to the first, who’ll actually put it to use.

What hits me is that when God gives us something to do with our lives, its like a mina. We can hit the ground running with it, or we can do a half hearted job. Or we can assume God is evil and that he’s just giving us a terrible burden, and go bury it. The effort that we expend to reach God’s goals for us he will magnify a million times over. But we actually have to do our part! Working hard toward on something does not rob God of his glory, it submits to his will.

It hits me that actually God is being kind towards the servants in what he gives them. The industrious one will enjoy his position in charge of ten cities, but the half hearted one would find the task of running ten cities to be too much. Five cities is plenty for the effort that he feels like expending. The guy who didn’t want to do anything with the burden of investing a mina certainly won’t want to deal with the burden of running a city, so in a sense, he gets what he most desires. It’s like the king was giving them a little taste of a bigger gift and responsibility, to see if they really wanted it. I’m sure that in the same way, the woman who won’t do her homework now probably won’t enjoy the hours of practice and preparation that a career in music requires.

In the world to come, there will be good things to do, and Jesus speaks about a reward for those who have served him. Doesn’t that make you want to get to work?

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Published in: on September 27, 2007 at 7:07 am  Comments Off on Doing Our Part  

Is God in Paradise?

That’s a silly question, don’t you think?  Isn’t God “our father in Heaven”? In the traditional Greek dualistic way of looking at the world, God infinitely far away from us, “up there,” in the realm of everything good and beautiful. Down here is the squalid, sinful earth that is going downhill rapidly and one day will perish.

Looking up the word “paradise,” (paradeisos in Greek), we do find that in Luke 23:43 Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will be with him in paradise. In 2 Corinthians 12:4, Paul describes being caught up in paradise and hearing inexpressible things. So yes, it’s correct to say God is in paradise.

But interestingly, the Greek word paradeisos actually means “garden” or “park.” It’s a loan word related to pardes, a Hebrew word for garden. Solomon said that he planted himself gardens using that word. In Genesis, the Garden of Eden is “gan aden” in Hebrew, but was translated as paradeisos in the Greek Septuagint.

When we read “our father in Heaven,” in the Gospels, the Greek word is uranos, which means “sky.” I think there the contrast is between our earthly father and our heavenly Father, not really about how he is in paradise. It is to say that God is our “heavenly Father” – he truly is a loving father to us, even though we have a human one too. The word uranos, or shemayim in Hebrew is often spoken of as the realm of God – the sky is his throne, while earth is his footstool.  But the idea is not that we will go to shemayim when we die.

In Hebrew, the word they use for Heaven in that sense is Gan Aden. Another phrase they use is olam haba, meaning “the world to come.” There, the sense is that God has promised to redeem this world, so it looks forward to a perfected world, in contrast to olam hazeh, which is the present (corrupted) world. I think that it is more hopeful to speak of Heaven as olam haba, looking forward to what God is doing to restore creation, to “make all things new,” as it says in Revelation.

All that being said, I love what Isaiah 57:15 says:

I live in a high and holy place,
but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, 
to revive the spirit of the lowly 
and to revive the heart of the contrite.

There, it actually says that God also lives with the one who grieves, the one who is crushed by the burdens of life here on earth. He really dwells here too, but the place you find him most is in the squalor – the depressing places that no one wants to go.

This actually changes my perception of God. I used to think of God as happily disconnected from us here. I would ask God why we all couldn’t be happy like he is. But then it hit me that if I genuinely love someone who is hurting, I don’t live a happy life as long as they are in pain. If God is truly empathetic with his people, he really doesn’t dwell in paradise. If our goal is only to be happy, we’re asking for something that even God doesn’t have, until he brings healing and redemption to the earth. In that sense, I think God yearns for olam haba just as we do – it’s not here yet for any of us. (OK, maybe since God is eternal, he is already there. But he is also really here, where life isn’t so great.)

In Isaiah 63:9, it says, “In all their affliction, he was afflicted.” God suffers as long as his people do. He is both on his heavenly throne, but fully with us here, and the place we can most join him is in healing the hurts of others.

Published in: on September 20, 2007 at 6:37 am  Comments Off on Is God in Paradise?  

Thinking about the Days of Awe

L’Shana Tovah – Happy New Year! 

Yesterday was Rosh HaShana – the Jewish New Year. It is the biblical “Feast of Trumpets” mentioned in Leviticus 23:23 and Numbers 29:1. The tradition is to blow a shofar – a ram’s horn – with a shrill, wailing blast to signal the coming of a new year.

There are several fascinating traditions that are part of this holiday. It’s actually a somewhat solemn holiday because it begins the “10 Days of Awe” – the 10 days of waiting before the great Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. They imagine that God has his “books” open to examine the lives of everyone during this time, and whether he will reward or punish you for your past conduct in the coming year. Each day starts with the blowing of a shofar, like an alarm clock going off to wake up a person to repent of his sins.

As a Christian, I’m somewhat ambivilent about the whole idea of fearing God’s judgment. But I really love the wisdom from another recent observance. This past month was Elul, and it’s traditional to examine one’s self throughout the month and repent of your sins then too, in preparation for the Ten Days of Awe. But a common midrash (imaginative sermon) that they like to share is that the letters of the name “Elul” are aleph-lamed-vav-lamed, and these are the first letters in the phrase, “Ani l’dodi ve dodi li” – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. This is the highly romantic phrase from Song of Songs that is often carved on wedding rings. They say that Elul is the time to remove  any little sins of yours that have made a distance between you and your beloved, the Lord, and to come into a closer relationship during this time.

The traditional reading for this time is Genesis 22, the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac by Abraham. As I’ve said before, I find it amazing that they ask God to forgive them of their sins for the sake of Isaac, who was willing to lay down his life at his father’s request. They point out that the shofar reminds them of the ram that God supplied as a substitute for Isaac, and they say that part of why they blow it is to remind God of how he supplied a substitute before.

Published in: on September 14, 2007 at 8:22 pm  Comments Off on Thinking about the Days of Awe  

God Should Get the Firsts

Throughout biblical times, there was a general principle that the firstfruits of everything belonged to God. It was the most appropriate offering to give because it was understood to be the best.

What is so special about “firsts”? Obviously, the person who has first choice can choose the best. And during a bad harvest, it takes faith to believe that if you give God a cut off the top, there will be enough left over to get you through until the next year. With children, there is always a specialness about the firstborn because he or she is the one who changed your life, and made you into a parent.

WheatThis was so important that no one was allowed to eat the fruit of a field until the first offering of it had been given to God. The whole field was assumed to be set apart and holy as the fruit matured, and only after God had been given his portion could humans enjoy the fruit. The custom was widespread in ancient times, and some traditional tribes in Africa still do this.

Knowing about firsts is also important for understanding the story of Cain and Abel. Abel offers the “fat portions of the firstborn of his flock” whereas Cain just offers “some of the fruit of the ground.” (Gen. 4:3-4) Abel is wholeheartedly offering the best of the best, and Cain is begrudgingly giving the minimum. It’s no mystery why God accepted Abel’s worship and not Cain’s.

All this in mind, I’ve also been pondering this as I organize my life. I admit that whenever I have some important task like writing an article or preparing a talk, that I always ask myself if there is anything else that I need to do first. I hate little distractions of things that need to be done, so why not get them out of the way? And truthfully, if I dread writing something, it makes a great avoidance technique. By pushing the writing to the end, I can control the time I spend on it by not allowing it to take longer than the time that is remaining. (I know there are others like me out there!)

What I’m realizing now is that when I write an article or talk first thing, it is a gift to God out of my best available time. I can spend as long as is required to make it nice. I can give God an opportunity to inspire me by having moments after its done to think and pray about it again. It is like an offering of my firstfruits.

But an article or presentation that is written last thing isn’t an offering at all – it is what I’ve been compulsed to do. Its purpose is more to serve my needs than God’s — to meet a deadline, or to have a decent talk together. Usually the project comes together just fine anyhow, and God graciously gives me inspiration at the late hour. But in terms of giving God my best, I know I haven’t done it.

What would happen if I always gave God my firstfruits?

Published in: on August 23, 2007 at 9:08 pm  Comments Off on God Should Get the Firsts  

New look and address for Life at the Wellspring

Just a quick announcement – I’ve done some things to enhance this blog. One is that it now has a simpler web address – lifeatthewellspring.com. (The old link still works, and will always work.) I switched from using Blogger to using WordPress – it has more features. Now I just need to start writing a few more blogs!

Published in: on August 20, 2007 at 7:42 am  Comments Off on New look and address for Life at the Wellspring  

Life on a Kibbutz in Israel

Some of you might be interested in hearing about where I’m staying for my Greek class (see below) – I’m at a hotel that is on a kibbutz. This one is called Kibbutz Tzuba, and it was begun in October 1948, only a few months after the State of Israel was founded. Some of its original members still live here – they are Holocaust survivors who lost everything and came here to start life over in the Promised Land.

We’ve been learning about what a kibbutz is from staying here, and it is quite interesting. The first tiny homes are still standing – we use one of them as our classroom. Originally two couples lived in each little house with a sheet dividing the rooms down the middle – like a small dorm room. At the very beginning, they lived in tents.

Of course, kibbutzes were founded out of a philosophy of socialism – to live in community and hold everything in common. The idea is that even though an individual might not be able to survive on his own, by combining efforts, people gain security from each other. As an American my first reaction is negative, but it seems that this has been many people have lived since ancient times. Whenever resources are scarce, people tend to live in large families or groups who can support each other. Coming to Israel in the 1940s and trying to build an existence out of nothing was that kind of situation, and if not for the kibbutzim, people wouldn’t have survived here.

Early on they tried to be utterly self-reliant, grow their own food, and teach their own schools. They would not hire help, or work outside for others. They would even donate all their clothes and wear those belonging to others. They still have a large communal dining room where we have been eating our meals too. Instead of having coin-operated washing machines for the hotel, they invited us to put our clothes into their communal laundry. Loads are washed in mesh bags to keep each person’s things separate. (I tried this once, and I got back extra bonus items lost from another person’s load – my wash has only been done in my bathtub since then.) (Several pictures of Kibbutz Tzuba are here.)

They also tried to be extremely egalitarian – each person would take on tasks as needed by the larger group, and no person was considered to be the boss of any other. Of course they did have someone who acted as the “organizer,” but each year a new person was elected, and last year’s organizer might next work in the chicken coops. Every buying decision was made by the whole group. I guess in the early years a major debate ensued over whether they would put a teapot in each family’s room. Many were opposed, because they thought it would break down the community that people had when they gathered in the kitchen for tea each evening.

They have large amounts of land and have done a lot of farming. But now they’ve built this hotel because they have a beautiful view and are quite close to Jerusalem. They also have a windshield factory too. They are always looking for new industries to sustain their members and have done quite well – a lot of kibbutzim have not succeeded. They think that within another 5 to 10 years they will have to privatize or reorganize, because people are not willing to make the sacrifices the original members did. About 500 people live here now.

One interesting thing is that the “Cave of John the Baptist” which was in the news a few years ago was found on their property, so they bring people on tours to see it. (It wasn’t that impressed, personally.) There is a water source at the bottom of a valley that was used as a mikveh by Jerusalem residents in the first century. They found a goofy looking figure scratched into the wall that they think is a drawing of John the Baptist. They suggest that maybe early church members went there to honor him, not that he lived there himself. Oh well, it draws tourists.

If you are traveling in Israel, the hotel here is really lovely and it would be a very nice place to stay. For more pictures, see the hotel website, as well as my roommate Elise’s website.

Published in: on July 23, 2007 at 8:34 am  Comments (1)  

Studying Greek in Israel

I’ve now been in Israel almost 6 weeks taking a Greek course (see last post.) I wanted to share a few more pictures from my class here. I’m flying home next Monday.

People occasionally ask me, why would a person study Greek in Israel? One reason is that you can go to the sites of New Testament events and read the original text right as you stand on the spot where it happened. You can see the things that the text is describing right in front of you. And also, the ancient sites are full of Greek inscriptions. Everywhere we go we have fun reading the texts that have been there since the time of Jesus.

Last week we had a three day field trip to northern Israel. We stayed at a hotel on the Sea of Galilee and swam there each night after long days of touring sites in the north. Many archaeological sites are full of Greek inscriptions, so we stopped and tried to read each one.

Here are some pictures from Cesarea Phillipi, near Dan. There used to be a large temple for the god Pan there, and around at the cave entrance that was the source of the Jordan river, there are many niches (carved shelves in the rock for shrines). I’ve been there before and seen the niches, but this time we noticed that each one had a Greek inscription below it. We couldn’t read all of the text but we could make out the words “To theo Pan” (to the god Pan). It is on the second line, just to the right of the middle. So we ourselves can read that these were dedicated to the god Pan. That was kind of cool.

We walked through the ruins of cities like Beth Shean and Caesarea Maritima and read the ancient mosaic floors. It’s neat to learn the language from the land itself.

Published in: on July 23, 2007 at 7:32 am  Comments Off on Studying Greek in Israel  

Kaire from Jerusalem

I’m now two weeks into my Greek course in Israel, and finally get a chance to write. I’m staying at a lovely retreat center outside of Jerusalem at Kibbutz Tzuba (see this link). There are about 15 students in my Greek course, and 18-20 students in the beginning Hebrew and Intermediate Hebrew courses, which I’ve taken before. I’m the only student in my class who has never studied Greek before, but I’m doing alright. The course is fun but difficult – it soars right along, and students are supposed to pick up lots of new vocabulary each day.

What is wonderful is that within only a few days of the beginning of the class, we were reading New Testament texts. We’ve acted out the parables of Jesus, including the story of the woman who has loses one of her ten coins, and the one about the man who holds a banquet and everyone has an excuse not to come. (The picture at left is of the joyful woman finding her coin.) It is amazing to understand the story in the original language so quickly.

We are memorizing the Lord’s Prayer in Greek this week. Next week we’ll be going to Caesarea to read Greek inscriptions there.

You can read all about this unique course at the http://www.biblicalulpan.org/ website.

Published in: on July 1, 2007 at 1:48 pm  Comments Off on Kaire from Jerusalem  

The Latest with Lois

I want to say thank you to all you friends who stop by this site and read my latest ideas. I apologize for not being more regular at writing. I’m sure many of you are wondering what I’ve been doing since I finished working for En-Gedi at the end of 2006 (due to financial changes in the ministry).The thing I’ve felt most called to do is to write. Just as we were making the decisions regarding En-Gedi last year, I had an opportunity to move much more in this direction. A woman who is an author and has worked in publishing for many years contacted me about submitting some book proposals to Christian publishers. That has been my project this past spring.

Praise the Lord, two proposals were accepted by Zondervan, and so now, for the next couple years, I will be working on writing two books. The first is a devotional book on Jesus’ teachings in their Jewish context. The other book will be a Bible study of 26 Hebrew words, with one week on each word. The plan is for them to be published in 2009, so it will be a while until you see them. But I’ll be posting snippets from them as I write. I already posted a little of the introduction of the book on Hebrew words, called “A Taste of Hebrew.”

In other news, in just a week, I’m going to Israel again (for the sixth time). I’ll be there for a six-week Greek course taught by the Biblical Language Center. I’ve done this twice before to study Hebrew, in an intro class and then later an intermediate class. The creator of these classes is Randall Buth, an outstanding scholar of biblical languages who has also done a lot of thinking about Jesus’ words in his Hebraic Jewish culture. He and David Bivin, another knowledgeable author in this field, will be teaching the class. (See Jerusalem Perspective to read some of their work.) So along with Greek, I’m sure we’ll be discussing the implications of the Greek text of the Gospels and what Jesus might have been saying in Hebrew.

In the fall, I’ll also be helping to teach introductory Hebrew at Western Theological Seminary, in my home town of Holland, MI. This seminary (of the Reformed church) has adopted the innovative approach developed by Randall Buth for teaching Biblical Hebrew – teaching it as a living, spoken language, rather than dissecting a text with grammar rules. The human mind learns much more quickly this way, with much greater comprehension, than by the teaching methods of a hundred years ago. They are the first seminary to decide to overhaul their teaching approach, and since I’ve studied with Buth, it makes sense for me to help.

You can see that the Lord has had his hand on my life through all these changes, with some huge new challenges in writing and teaching. I really covet your prayers for protection and strength for the coming days. And please keep in touch! My email is l t v e r b e r g @ g m a i l . c o m (without the spaces) if you want to drop me a line.

God’s richest blessings –

Lois

Published in: on June 8, 2007 at 6:25 am  Comments Off on The Latest with Lois  

Learning from the Tzitzit

If you’ve learned much of anything about Judaism, you know about the commandment to wear tassels on the corners of one’s garments in Numbers 15:37-41, which Jewish men still do today. In Jesus’ time, tzitziyot (plural of tzitzit) were worn all the time, and some Orthodox still do. Others wear them only on prayer shawls during times of prayer and worship.I used to think they were just a silly legalism, but it turns out that they are deeply significant and are full of meaning. (I wrote about this before.) In ancient times, tassels were a sign of nobility, and blue dye a sign of priesthood. God was giving the Jews a special uniform to wear to make them stand out as his representatives, a nation of priests. He tells them that when they look at their tassels it will remind them to be obedient – since everyone knows how they’re supposed to live. What a tough thing to be told to always wear a uniform that says that you represent a holy God!

In Jesus’ time they were quite simple, but at some point a tradition of winding elaborate knots began. Various patterns in the knots and windings point to the 4 letters of God’s name, the 5 books of the Torah, the 613 commandments, etc. At one point in time the need for one blue strand was dropped when the dye became extremely expensive. (All of these details are just tradition, but they really are beautiful and wise.)

Despite all of these beautiful customs about tzitziot, one observation about them has always bugged me. Since before Jesus’ time they’ve been considered the holiest part of one’s garment (which is why the woman grasped Jesus’ tassels), and like every Jewish holy thing, they are made with great care. So why is it that they always hang down at random lengths, one or two strings much longer, the rest at all different lengths too? Considering how much emphasis that they place on beautifying God’s commands, I find this really surprising. It used to bug me every time I looked at them. I had a huge urge to go around with a scissors and give everyone a trim.

If you can’t tell, this kind of silly observation about tzitzit only comes from someone who has a problem with perfectionism – who sees things around her that need to be “corrected” and spends way too long doing everything so that it is “just so.” Who can even sacrifice the feelings of others for the sake of having things perfect, and insists on having everything her way, the only perfect way.

Then I learned a lesson by finding out more. The reason they are not trimmed is because once they are completely wound together, they become holy. A person prays before and during their making, and as they work, they are producing an object dedicated to God’s use. As soon as they are done, a scissors cannot touch them — they are to be used as they are, uneven lengths and all.

What I learned from the tzitzit is that these little objects become holy to God in all their imperfection. In all their scraggly-looking unevenness, God calls them “done.” He likes them the way they are, and doesn’t want them trimmed any more.

To me it is a lesson that holiness is not the same as earthly perfection. That once God gives us a task to do and we accomplish it, it becomes holy and special to him, warts and all. Often he even uses the warts to his glory. I think it’s just human pride to get angry at yourself for not being perfect – why do you think you even could?

Now when I look at my bathroom wallpapering job and see seams that don’t quite butt together and bumps in the wall underneath, I proclaim it good enough, beautiful as it is, and enjoy the fact that God has given me the skills to do as well as I did.

It’s very freeing to let God be perfect, and not have to be perfect myself.

Published in: on May 24, 2007 at 3:47 pm  Comments (1)