Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Ensoulment and Personhood

As long as I wrote about the Creation vs. Evolution debate yesterday, I might as well today write about when human life begins.

The short answer is "I don't have any idea." The longer answer adds, "And neither does anyone else."

First of all, I need to clarify two definitions, well-established by past doctinal dicussions. Personhood is when a life is first able to be treated as a human being -- a real person. Ensoulment is when a life gains a human soul.

Scripturally these are not the same. In Jeremiah 1:5 we read that personhood can begin before conception (Psalm 139:15-16 seems to agree). This is not a position people know how to deal with. What does it mean for issues of contraception, abortion, and infertility treatments if in God's eyes conception is (sometimes or always) the transition to Part II of our existence?

Among other things, it means that God places little value on prenatal life. Current research estimates that as many as 70% of fertilized eggs do not implant in the uterus, and as many as 40% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (about half of those pregnancies ending so early that they would never be noticed by the parents). It is nonsensical to assert that every conception is highly valued by God.

Either God does not see value fertilized or even newly-implanted eggs as he values human life, or he is content to let about two-thirds of humanity "skip" living in This World and go straight to the World to Come. I seldom see either alternative espoused by believers.

A different set of issues is presented when we ask when ensoulment begins. Until 14 days, an embryo lacks a "primitive streak" (what becomes the spinal column) and can split into twins. Anyone claiming ensoulment begins at conception must have an explanation for how a life with a human soul can go through twinning.

To add to the confusion, what counted as "standard belief" among believers has changed over they years.

Judaism has had more consistency. Since before the first century it taught that any fetus people know about is
a life made in the image of God. Any pregnancy is thus to be cherished! The one exception is a pregnancy that endangers the mother. In that case the fetus is classified as a rodayf, a hostile persuer (still a person), whose threat must be neutralized: by surgery if possible, or by abortion if necessary.

Too Cute!

Yesterday I was told about what must be the cutest webcomic ever. Don't click the link on the link unless you have half an hour free...

Count Your Sheep

For those without the time to read through them, some of my favorites: 1, 2, 3. And for those who also swing dance, this one too.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Creation and Evoultion

As a minister, I sometimes get questions about the "Creation vs. Evolution" debate. Here's a summary of my thoughts.

First, by my use of the word science none of it is science. As someone trained in the hard sciences, to me "science" is about measurable and repeatable experiments. So Creationism and Intelligent Design are not science, and neither is Macro-Evolution.

(For that matter, neither is Archaeology. There are volumes of Archeological reports claiming to either support or refute scriptural authenticity, and reading through them makes the lack of science quite evident. As perhaps the most blatant example, it is very reasonable but not currently provable to claim that carbon dating is as accurate for dates millions of years old as it is for recent dates which can be demonstrably verified.)

Micro-Evolution is science, as anyone who has bred goldfish or dogs knows well. But that's not what the debate is about. (Micro-Evolution describes how traits established but not always visible in a genetic code can be made visible in successive generations. The debate is about how traits not yet established in a genetic code first arrive there.)

I do agree with Michael Ruse that the debate is not a science-versus-religion fight but a religion-versus-religion intra-family feud. What the pro-Evolution people almost always discuss is not pure Macro-Evolution but what Ruse calls "Evolutionism": a worldview not based on science that has values and ethics as well as scientific theory, which deals with religious issues (a creation story, the purpose of humanity, a definition of human progress, ethical codes).

Ruse's book describes the rise of both Evolutionism and Creationism from a common base that originally lacked any fiery debate (even Huxley agreed Evolution had no implications for theism) and through common social factors (such as the Enlightenment's desire for views about human purpose and how to work towards a utopia). I could say more about the debate, but should probably just end with this book recommendation.

Shopping Help

Anyone know where to purchase (or download) a copy of the Talmudic tract whose name translates to "Pirque Mashiach" (i.e., also "Pirque Mashiah", "Pirkay Mashiah", etc...)?

Many thanks for any help!
And now let us speak in praise of King Messiah who will come in the future with the clouds of heaven and two Seraphim to his right and to his left, as it is written, Behold, with the clouds of heaven came one like the son of man...How beautiful is King Messiah bringing the gospel to Israel!
-Pirkay Mashiach 3:70,74

Friday, February 24, 2006

Where is Mr. Incredible Now?

Some days I am especially glad I moved from Southern California. (Link courtesy of Dave Barry.)

Another -ship

Another cute insight paraphrased from Jonathan Cahn's monthly publication...

In Ephesisans 5:1-2 we are told to imitate God while seeing ourselves as his "beloved children". And we are told that a help to considering ourselves as beloved is to be aware of and receiving of Yeshua's love.

Things we do tend to get made into -ship words. A congregation does worship, discipleship, fellowship, etc. We could also consider "belovedship" as the practice of receiving God's love and understanding ourselves as beloved children, so that we may better imitate God.

Luke 4

Luke 4 is a surprisingly pithy chapter.

Tempations and healings happen outside of the synagogues. Inside, Yeshua gets kicked out, and also a demon gets kicked out.

Yeshua stubbornly returns to visiting synagogues; the demon is never heard from again.

How much is it still true in general that temptations and healings (i.e., what shape people) happens outside synagogues, and inside is a focus on kicking things out (while Yeshua is trying to get in and get heard)?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Average vs. Median

Okay, math fans, here's a quick questions.

According to the Federal Reserve, reported by AP: after adjusting for inflation, the year 2004 had median American income increase but average American income decrease.

So if the income value that half the families are above or below increased, more people are earning more. And if the average income also decreased, then in general which group has the decreasing income?

Median net worth also rose in 2004.

Poor AP writer. He could have said, "After adjusting for inflation, the poorer half of America is earning more and saving more. Income decrease is falling disproportionally on the richer half." That would have made him and his story popular! Instead he gave us a math problem.

If a Place was Gone

Yesterday the place in Samarra, Iraq, where the Shi'ite Muslims believe their messiah will return was partly destroyed.

This morning the situation appears to be extremely tense but not explosive.

About a year ago I read a fictional novel in which, towards the end, Jerusalem was utteryly destroyed. (In the story it was not a nuclear attack, but a different different kind of attack that turned everything within a few miles of the city center to powder.)

That chapter was shocking because previous chapters had all happened in America and presented no foreshadowing that the action would move to the Middle East or an entire city would be destroyed. And I was also left with an odd feeling because the "willing suspension of disbelief" I had as a reader was also demolished.

In retrospect there was no basis for this personal reaction. The prophetic events of Zechariah 12-14 and Revelation could be fulfilled years in the future, in a Jerusalem rebuilt from dust. Zechariah 14:2 makes it quite clear that the city does not have a shield of divine protection.

Yet I have a caring and love for that city, even though I have never been there. It seems inconceivable that after so much has survived so long that everything would vanish in moment.

This week I can sympathize with the Shi'ite shock and pain.

I am studying the books of Haggai and Zechariah. Both of these prophets apparently see the rebuilding of the Temple as an indication that the messianic era is imminent. Indeed, both even name Zerubbabel as the messiah (Haggai 2:22-23 and the combination of Zechariah 4:8-9 and Zechariah 6:10-13).

Zerubbabel quickly disappears from history. The Jewish people had been facing many enemies for 17 years after returning from exile, and perhaps being named messiah was fatal. Jewish kingship ends and there is a long delay until the next Israelite secular ruler rises (about 400 years, until the Maccabees).

Zerubabel is in Yeshua's lineage in Luke 3:27 and Matthew 1:12. He really was chosen, but only in lineage and not as himself being the messiah. This is consistent with scriptural language, in which a person's name often refers to a specific descendant of that person. Anyone told (as in Haggain 2:22-23) that "in that Day" he would be chosen should understand it probably means his descendant in the far future. But given the tone of Haggai and Zechariah, the fall of Zerubabel must have been a terrible shock to him as well as to Haggai and Zechariah. (Zerubbabel's partner, Joshua the high priest, apparently lives a little longer and does more in his lifetime.)

Scripture predicts that the Jewish people will be brought back to the land of Israel, that it be restored from desert to blossoming like a rose, and that God will never allow the Jewish people to be scattered again. It is tempting to be convinced that these prophecies are being fulfilled in our days. But it could still happen that Jerusalem is destroyed and the Jewish people of the Land are driven into Diaspora. Our generation would not be the first to have been disappointed after thinking that they were seeing fulfillment of these prophecies of everlasting return and restoration.


Jonathan Cahn and his congregation publish a monthly booklet with snippets from his sermons and news about their what their congregation has been doing. In the October 2005 issue he mentioned something nifty.

The name Capernaum in Hebrew is K'far Nachum. The word k'far simply means "village". The word nachum is a derivative of nacham which is not as easy to translate. It most literally means "to comfort" but when used reflexively it changes from any sort of comforting one's self to consoling one's self by feeling sorry, feeling regret, and doing repentance.

In Matthew's gospel, Yeshua specifically starts proclaiming the good news after he arrives in K'far Nachum (4:13-17). His message of restoration to God was proclaimed first from the Village of Comfort. The good news is comfort to us from God. And it is how we can console ourselves through repentance.

(The other gospel authors agree that K'far Nachum was the place Yeshua's ministry started, but do not link the village, and thus its name, with the good news as explicitly.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

No Eisner or Kirby?

The group Jews for Jesus is well known for being single-minded in their focus.

I normally do not complain much about their publications. Jews for Jesus is careful to speak of itself as different from Messianic Judaism. So I could make timely comments about how some of their theology is drastically different than that of Messianic Judaism when their publications make this evident, but that would be needless and impolite.

But now they publish an issue of Issues (volume 16, number 5) featuring the Jewish presence in comic book writers, and in single-mindedly pursuing their focus they do a terrible job of presenting that topic! They completely neglect mentioning the most influential Jewish comic book writers and how the entire field has been dominated by Jewish writers.

The main comic book awards are called the Eisners, for goodness's sake! Jack Kirby has a mountain named after him (in Astro City)! I even wonder which of my readers can name a famous non-Jewish comic book writer? (Anyone know Frank Miller's lineage?)

Really! To call such sloppiness journalism...

(I know. It's not supposed to be journalism. Sigh.)

Trees Without Veils Who Seek

Many people read Matthew 7:15-27 with a focus on the "fruit" rather than the "tree". The point is not to attempt to be a source of goodness. The point is that if you are good, you will naturally be a source of goodness. The parables are not meant to provide us with a goal, but with a standard to see ourselves more clearly.

This is related to Second Corinthians 3:18, in which the veil imagery has an unexpected context. Paul's point is that believers can see God and understand scripture more clearly than unbelievers, even though neither sees God directly.

A more obvious source of veil-is-now-gone imagery would be the veil in the Temple which had recently been torn in two at the time of Yeshua's death. Citing how Moses wore a veil after he descended from Sinai (because the Israelites could not bear to look at his radiant face) confuses the issue -- the analogy would would only fit well if the Israelites had been wearing veils, not Moses. Why would Paul use such a forced and awkward analogy?

Paul writes than only when a Jew "turns to God" is the veil removed so that God and scripture can be more clearly seen.

In other words, without turning to God it does not help to practice praying or practice studying scripture. Perhaps you know people that have expended much effort yet their praying never becomes more than meditation, and their scripture study never becomes more than vocabulary insights and pattern-matching.

To see God and to understand scripture are good things but they cannot be the focus and the goal. Rather, we must let Yeshua make our natures good, and then these good fruits will come naturally. Our focus and goal is being deep in the Kingdom of God (all of our lives are under God's rule) and thus deeply experiencing its righteousness.

We do not need to seek Yeshua -- he is knocking, waiting, and makes himself very available. We cannot effectively seek to produce good fruit. All we need do is turn to God and then follow him.

Yet we must do that. Until we turn to God and follow him the veil remains. One veil was removed when Yeshua died: the veil through which God looked out of the Temple at us. But that was not the only veil. The veil through which we look at God will remain until we turn to God.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Disciples and Converts

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a friend about the "Great Commission" -- that phrase is the common jargon for Yeshua's instruction in Matthew 28:18-20 to "make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you..."

The conversation focused on how this commandment is about making disciples. This was a very specific concept in first-century Judaism, which Yeshua modeled with his disciples.

A disciple is someone dedicated to changing his life by following someone and learning from them. A person can be Yeshua's disciple if he or she follows and learns from Yeshua's established teaching and Yeshua's active guidance.

Key to this dynamic is that Yeshua has risen, and communicates with us. Whether a believer receives words, images, dreams, or even scriptural verse references (or any combination of these) the fact remains that you cannot be the disciple of a dead person. In other words, you must be the disciple of a living person; there is no such thing as being the disciple of someone's teaching or legacy.

Messianic Judaism is quite focused on this disciple-making. Congregational life is built around helping people follow and learn from Yeshua.

In contrast, the Great Commission is usually interpreted by the Gentile Church to be about making converts. It is easier to make converts than disciples, because less commitment is requested and no interaction with God is required.

Yeshua routinely chased away potential converts who did not have the potential to become disciples. He thinned the crowd by saying difficult things (see John 8:30-59, Luke 14:25-35, and John 6:48-71) .

A person can be a convert to a system of ideas. It is possible to have many wrong ideas about the Messiah and make converts to that system of wrong ideas. But Yeshua has no false or heretical disciples: if people really meet Yeshua, and communicate with him, then they are following him and not a system of ideas; in time he will correct any wrong ideas they have.

Messianic Jewish congregations tend to reject the entire mindset of "convert". Instead they establishes two things: (1) Yeshua is Jewish and his disciples can be Jewish (2) we are those of his disciples who are living a Jewish lifestyle.

It is not that a Messianic Jewish congregation tries to "skip a step" -- there is no step! A person does not need to become a convert to a system of ideas to become the disciple of a person. Yeshua wants people to follow him and to start ASAP. An incredible diversity of thought and ideas exist in Messianic Jewish conregations because we are not groups of people who before coming together converted to similar systems of ideas about theology, morals, politics, etc.

Your God Reigns

A congregant asked me to read Showdown of the Gods by Victor Schlatter.

It was a bear to get through. The writing is of a style I shall dub "good-natured fanatic". Mr. Schlatter holds his beliefs very firmly and enjoys poking fun at opposing beliefs. This typically requires him to take twice as long to say anything, and often obscures what he is saying.

Add to the mix that I find many of the views he opposes to be straw men, and others are now obsolete four years after the fact, and that style gets slightly burdensome. Then add a lack of practical applications, and it gets wearisome.

He did make an interesting point in the ninth chapter. He notes that the hymn "Our God Reigns" (warning: link has sound) begins by citing Isaiah 52:7 but changes the text from "Your God reigns!" to "Our God Reigns!"

At a recent Shabbat service, there was a nice discussion about Romans 11 and the concept of "provoking unbelieving Jews to jealousy". The kind of jealousy mentioned there is not the jealousy of wanting what someone else has or has stolen from you. Instead, Paul is asking Gentile believers to give unbelieving Jews a cherished awareness of how much they have.

This is the kind of jealousy that in English uses the phrase "jealous over" instead of "jealous of". When my wife and I go swing dancing I not only like dancing with her but I also like watching her dance. It is nice to see her enjoying dancing while I can rest on the sideline. When I dance with her I look at her face a lot, and this is complimented by how when I watch her dance with someone else I can admire more of her figure. Watching her dance with another man is not threatening. I do not get jealous of the man she is dancing with. But I do feel jealous over her -- I am made aware how much I value and cherish her.

Similarly, in Romans 11, Paul asks Gentile believers to help unbelieving Jews realize how real their God is, how valuable God's promises are, and how much God seeks intimacy with people he has called his own.

In other words, in Romans 11 Paul is urging Gentile believers to tell unbelieving Jews, "Your God reigns!".

Isaiah returns to this in more detail in chapters 61-62. Gentile believers should be an encouragement and assistance to Israel. (Maybe not all of them, but enough of them to fulfill this calling.) In verses 6:1-9 "me" refers to Yeshua, "you" is Israel, and "they" are Gentile believers. In 61:10 through 62:5 the theme remains the same but the pronouns change as the passage shows a first-person perspective of the Gentile believers. Verses 62:5-12 conclude with Yeshua's first-person perspective.

Sadly, Gentile believers almost always fail in this role. It is especially sad because Romans 11 tells us that Yeshua will not return until Gentile believers reach "fullness" in this role!

Usually, unbelieving Jews see the message of the Gentile Church as even being about a totally different God! As with the hymn, the message has been changed from "Your God reigns!" to "Our God reigns!".

Back After a While

Hm. My blogging has been nonexistent for over a month. I guess I'm not addicted to it.

I have been busy, as well as dealing with illness. I'm not sure I have been sick in the past month but my wife caught a very bad cold. Between taking care of her and perhaps my body fighting off catching that cold I had been quite tired for about two weeks (Feb. 3rd through 15th).

My community college teaching did not happen on Monday, because it was President's day. It was nice to have some extra time to catch up on small chores. The whole month I have felt like I was just barely getting done what I needed to get done.

In retrospect, I should not have felt bad about that. My wife was getting a lot of my attention. My congregants have been receiving as much of my time as they want and need. Shabbats have been worshipful and nice. My math teaching is going well. I've had time to read the news and some interesting editorials. There must be many people for whom "barely getting done what I needed to get done" seems an unattainably high goal. But I had just felt very confined with no apparent cause.

I have been negligent in yard work, but the yard does not care. It also does not reward prompt lawnmowing. I've been diligent about keeping dandelions plucked. The grass can wait until it is about to go to seed.

I have not started taxes yet, but never do until March.

I have been praying regularly, but of course could always be praying even more.

I have not had a chance to watch the Lord of the Rings DVDs I received for a holiday present. (More LOTR humor here and here and here.) But my wife and I also received a box set of the Narnia books, and I've been reading them to her (we're in the middle of the third).

For my relaxing time that is totally unlike anything in real life I was playing an MMORPG, but now am reading e-books instead. I found the Cthulhu stories as e-books but they got old; the adjective "Herculean" has only limited robustness. Now I'm enjoying a lesser-known novel by Bram Stoker which is delightfully amusing as a product of its time.

More nice is that I upgraded my Palm's free Bible software and the new version has a built-in schedule for reading through scripture in a year (with links to tap and check-boxes). That's been a nice excuse to be reading parts of scripture I normally read only very seldom.

Well, now you know what I have been up to (and not up to). Besides collecting all those entertaining links during the past month I also have a pile of books and magazines with post-it notes marking interesting things to comment about. Most are ministry related but not fitting into any sermon or any Torah portion comments.

Let's see if I can get this act on the road. (Warning: last link has sound.)