The Eastern Mind #9 — Self vs. Community

I want to further unpack the result of our foundational metaphysic. If we believe the universe is foundationally chaos, and we must control and predict, and the carpet can get pulled out from underneath of us at any moment, then there is a net side effect so common that we wouldn’t even consider it abnormal. It is rooted in a particular view of the world that is not in line with the invitation of scripture.

The western mind always begins the solution of any problem with the net impact on self. We see the world starting with the self and working outward. We view everything this way. Generosity is often only a value if we have extra to give, but we must make sure we take care of self first. Then, a cascading structure of resource allotment is based on those most dear to me.

This is very western. All the way back to Rome and before, this was true. Even in how towns functioned, water was apportioned, and influence was given. It was always rooted in the self of the most important person and structured based on production, accumulation, and status.

In this worldview, there are always going to be those who cannot bring value to the table. They don’t bring value to another person’s self, therefore they have no role in the societal structure. If you don’t produce, you don’t help me; if you don’t help me, you have no inherent value.

Who does this eliminate? What about babies who are given up as a matter of convenience? In the Roman world they were placed just outside the city gates to cook in the sun and die due to exposure. What about the kid with Down syndrome or the quadriplegic who will always be dependent on the system for help? Do they have value?

In the eastern world, it is very different. They see their foundational impulse as caring for the community first. When each person lives this way, all needs are met. And this idea has marked me forever.

When I was in Israel in 2013, I was on a tour that had a surprise stop in the desert to watch a shepherd boy with his sheep. There were 60 of us overfed Americans standing on the side of the highway, watching a shepherd who we later found out was more than four hours away from his tent, his family, and his food.

Out of nowhere, this kid came over to our group and gave us his lunch. It wasn’t much. And it wouldn’t have satisfied the hunger of any one of the people on the tour, let alone all of us. But this kid gave us everything he had. Understand, he was choosing to go hungry for the rest of the day. He wasn’t going to go home and get more. He wasn’t going to be able to eat until late that night, and it was early morning. But he gave it anyway, because in the eastern world, we take care of the community before we care for ourselves.

While this seems simple enough, I can tell you that this foundationally shook me. If I was the shepherd boy, I would have said hello. I would have visited and shared information about shepherding, and even entertained a few Bible passages and questions from these crazy tourists standing on the highway. But I would not have given them my food. I would have nothing to eat if I did that. God wouldn’t ask me to do that, would He? God would want me to be happy, wouldn’t He?

In the eastern world, the rich man in the town has the poorest person placed daily at his driveway. It is his responsibility and privilege to care for the poor man. In our world, we would call the police. Now read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

May you find the power of “others first.” And may you show the world what it means to serve one another in love.

The Eastern Mind #8 — Metaphysic

There is a baseline truth to the way we see the universe. This is rooted in the worldview we hold. As westerners, we are Greek in our thinking, so it will be helpful to understand how Greek thinking has affects how we react to the world. It has fingers that I am sure we have not fully explored.

Metaphysics is a philosophical approach that wrestles with the questions of the fundamental nature of reality and being. In other words, what are the most foundational realities of the universe?

The Greek metaphysic is deeply rooted in our minds and shows up in all kinds of ways. The Greek understanding of the universe is that it is foundationally chaos. It is out of control and unpredictable. It is dangerous and can hurt you at any moment. Therefore, I must try to understand how everything works for the purpose of predicting and controlling outcomes.

This heavily influences us, even in how we understand God. Think about how it plays out when a surprise happens in the day. How do you respond? Tragedy strikes — how do you respond? This leads to panic that makes us cry out in fear to God, begging Him to solve it, and often feeling paralyzed to move forward until the chaos of that moment subsides.

Now, it isn’t all together bad. The insatiable need to understand for the purpose of predicting and controlling has led to some good things: medicine, understanding of diseases, DNA — much of the sciences come out of this drive to predict and control. But when it comes to things no one can control — natural disaster, famine, drought, even love — this need to control can leave us in a very insecure place.

The eastern view of the universe is drastically different. Rather than being chaos, the universe is foundationally ordered. And it is ordered by a God who in His very nature is good and loves us. He is not angry, nor does he need to be appeased to keep the chaos away. This also radically affects how we deal with the situations described earlier.

When chaos strikes our world, we do not have to panic. We can rest. We can rest in the truth that there is a God in the universe who is in control and He loves me. He is a good God who provides. This is very different than the pagan gods of other civilizations, which must continually be appeased and held at bay so they don’t wreak havoc in the world. But we are guessing about how to appease them, and they are not bound to honor their word, so they can still create problems even if we have done everything correctly.

This is the radical part of the creation story in Scripture. The writer of Genesis 1 is not trying to prove or disprove a certain scientific understanding of creation. The author’s desire is to show a whole new kind of God who is rooted in peace and safety, and one who has the universe under control and your best interests at heart.

That changes everything.

May you find rest in the grace of a God who has you safely in the palm of His hand. May you find the peace that passes understanding — not from letting go of caring, but from taking hold of the character of God.

The Eastern Mind #7 — Nouns and Verbs

As we have mentioned already in this series, western thought is prepositional and philosophical. It is rooted in abstract concepts and ideas rather than concrete realities like the eastern thought process. As a consequence of this, the western languages are built upon ideas, concepts, and things — nouns. This may sound trite, but it isn’t. What this leads to is the reality that when we communicate, we communicate ideas and intent, not necessarily action.

As westerners listen to a lecture, talk, lesson, or sermon, we can absolutely agree with everything stated, but because we understand it conceptually, not concretely, we have no real need to act on what we agree to. Because our language is built on abstract concepts and ideas, we disconnect desire and action, or what we want to do and what we actually do.

This shows up in all kinds of ways in our lives. We “want” to lose weight, but we rarely act on it. We want to change jobs or go back to school or any number of other things, but we do not actually move forward on any of it.

The eastern world is different. Hebrew, for example, is a language built around verbs rather than nouns. The thrust of the story, the lesson, the sermon, is in the action taken, not the concept or idea that drove the action. This changes a lot about how we live our lives and what we say about what we want to do and what we don’t want to do.

When I was learning Hebrew, I was learning from a self-taught program led by an Israeli national. She was great and very helpful. However, I struggled to turn my assignments in. I had the best intentions, but I had terrible follow through.

She asked me one day if I wanted to learn Hebrew. I said I absolutely wanted to learn Hebrew. She said something to me that I will never forget: “Well, from a Hebrew perspective, you do not want to learn Hebrew.” Simple and profound. All the good intentions in the world mean nothing without action to follow it up. This is the worldview of those who wrote the Bible.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey me.” On the surface it sounds like works righteousness, but think about it. From the perspective of a Jew, that is absolutely how Jesus should have said it. Beyond the truth of this statement, the worldview is totally evident. To a Hebrew, you don’t love God if you don’t do what He says. Love for them isn’t a concept or idea or abstract feeling. It is a verb. It is an action. It is faithfulness to the call we have been given. This is why the scripture says that if we claim to be in Christ, we must walk as Jesus walked. Some translations will render it “live as Jesus lived.” Walk implies action, and in the Jewish mind there is no difference. Your walk is your life, no matter the words you speak.

So, may you live out your life. May you be known by how you walk the path. May your actions always speak louder than your words. And may you close the gap between feelings and actions.

The Eastern Mind #6 — Teaching Tools

There are many times Jesus says things that blow the mind of the first hearers, and we often miss it. For various reasons, we just aren’t aware of the depth of what is being said.

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi. Therefore, we can assume He used the teaching tactics of the rabbis of His day. I want to list those tactics here and give examples with the hope that we can open up our understanding of some of those more difficult-to-understand passages. I will build out what are known as “The 7 Principles of Hillel,” who was a rabbi Jesus often agreed with. There were other lists that added to these with as many as 32 principles, but these will get the conversation started.

  1. Kal va’homer (kal-VA-o-mer') It literally means “light and heavy.” Stated another way, it means lesser and greater. This tool is used in comparing God to something earthly, or in comparing two earthly things that are unequal in value. We see it all over Scripture, but Jesus uses it, for example, in Matthew 6. He says, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly father feeds them. And how much more valuable are you than birds?”
  2. Gezerah shavah (geh-zeh-RAH sheh-VAH) It literally means “similar laws, similar verdicts.” It is an argument by analogy. David Instone Brewer defines it this way: “The interpretation of one text in the light of another text to which it is related by a shared word or phrase. The two texts are often concerned with the same subject, but the existence of the same word or phrase in two texts can suggest a relationship between them even if they are concerned with completely unrelated subjects. Jesus’ witness to who John the Baptist truly is becomes an example of this technique. Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 are brought together because of a similar phrase. ‘I am sending my messenger to guard (Exodus) / prepare (Malachi) the way.’ ”
  3. Binyan ab mi-katuv echad (bin-YAN av mi-ka-TUV e-HAHD) This is when a certain passage serves as the basis for interpreting all other related passages. So the decision made about one passage is valid for all the rest.
  4. Binyan ab mi-shene ketubim (bin-YAN av mi-shNE keh-tu-VEEM) This is when two passages are used to validate one principle. Jesus uses this tactic when He is teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth in Luke 4. The Gentile widow during the famine of Elijah’s day and Naaman, the Gentile who was healed of leprosy during Elisha’s time, both prove that God has always wanted to help Gentiles. His followers were always supposed to be a blessing to the whole world.
  5. Kelal u-perat, perat u-kelal (k-LAL uf-RAT uf-RAT k-LAL) It literally means “general and particular, particular and general.” Jesus uses this principle in His conversation with the Pharisees who were upset that He and his disciples were picking grain on the Sabbath. He uses the story of David and his men eating the Bread of Presence from the tabernacle, and that the priests were allowed to continue their ministry of intercession for Israel, even on the Sabbath, to restrict what the Sabbath law should be. It should never prevent someone from showing mercy. This general principle allows hungry people to eat on the Sabbath, even if it means picking grain on the Sabbath.
  6. Ka-yoze bo mi-makom acher (ka-yo-TZE bo mi-MA-kom a-HARE) This is using a similar passage to explain the one I am teaching from. When Jesus is being tempted, He is invited by Satan to turn stones into bread. Jesus says that man doesn’t live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes form the mouth of God. This is a quote from Deuteronomy and is a clear reference to tie this moment to the temptations Israel faced in the desert. Where Israel failed, Jesus would succeed.
  7. Davar ha-lamed me-inyano (da-VAR ha-la-MED me-in-ya-NO) This is an interpretation of a word or passage based on its context. Jesus uses this more than once when talking about forgiveness, adultery, generosity, and other words, speaking of how they should be lived out in real life.

This is a simplified list and an attempt at giving some idea of how to begin pulling apart the words of Jesus. I hope it sparks a curiosity that will move you to deeper and better study in scripture.

The Eastern Mind #5 — Discipleship

Discipleship has become a bit of a buzzword in the American Church in the last few years — and rightly so. Discipleship is critical to healthy spiritual development for any follower of Jesus. We must be discipled and we must also commit to making disciples. This is foundational for anyone who wants to take faith seriously.

And here is where the conversation begins. I teach a membership class in our church that tries to explain who we are as a church and where we are headed and how we plan to get there. I always ask two fundamental questions at the beginning of every class. First, On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is discipleship? In 23 years of teaching this class I have never had anyone say anything other than a 10. We all recognize that discipleship is critical for everyone.

Then I ask a follow up question: What is discipleship? And it gets fuzzy and jumbled in a hurry. People mumble and contemplate and wax eloquent. It is interesting to me how we all agree that discipleship is absolutely critical, and yet once we begin to talk about what it actually is, we can’t seem to focus on what we ought to do.

Discipleship in the Jewish world was and still is very intentional. This may be an eye opener for many of us as we consider how we might fulfill the great commission.

Jewish schooling is very different than what we are familiar with. In our western education system, our goal is to get the student to know what the teacher knows. We disseminate information and take tests that prove I can regurgitate the information — or at least I can lock it into my short-term memory long enough to pass a test. The problem is that there is no need for the ability to use this information or prove that I can apply it in life.

In a Jewish education, the goal is that the student becomes what the teacher is. It is not enough for the student to be able to reproduce facts from his mind. He must also be able to prove that he understands how to use the information in real life. Proficiency in application is core to how they teach.

Discipleship reflects that premise. The goal of discipling someone in the Jewish world is not teaching or education — it is the desire to have the person I am discipling walk just as I have walked. In other words, the goal of the student is to become what the teacher is, in every sense.

Paul alludes to this idea in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 Thessalonians 3:

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you.

It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.

And the writer of Hebrews speaks of it in chapter 13:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.

John also picks up on this idea in 3 John:

Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.

Maybe the problem we have with understanding what it means to make a disciple is that we don’t truly understand what it means to live a life worth imitating. Or maybe it is that we don’t understand what it means to allow people to know us deeply enough that they could imitate us.

Discipleship must be relational at a foundational level if we are going to become what our teacher is. This is one of the central critiques from Jewish people concerning Christianity as a whole. If Jesus was a rabbi, He must have been the worst rabbi ever because His followers look nothing like Him.

Perhaps the place to begin is in being willing to know others truly and to be truly known. And maybe before that even happens, we need to make sure we are actually dealing with the issues in our lives that don’t look much like Jesus. One thing about doing discipleship the way the writers of the Bible would have done it is that it forces all of us to deal with the junk in our lives because we become so deeply known by others.

May you become a great disciple maker. And may you be willing to be truly known.