Friday, December 31, 2010

Where Is Your Heart?

When speaking with a new client, career counselors, after getting all the pertinent information on job history and the like, will often ask their clients, "Now, what do you really want to do? Where is your heart?"—or as the self-help book asked, "What color is your parachute?"

They probably receive a lot of wild responses such as, "Well, I have always wanted to run away to the circus." Or, "I actually enjoy ironing!" Or, "All my life, all I have ever wanted to do is sing!" A good counselor, after hearing what the client would like to do, will put him through a battery of tests to see if his talents and aptitudes actually match his dreams.

Often, it is not the case. The tests may show that the man who wanted to run away to the circus would actually do well as an accountant, and the woman who loved ironing would make an excellent TV meteorologist. The singer should perhaps not quit his day job.

The question, though, is a good one: "Where is your heart?" We are considering, not the thumping muscle in the center of one's chest, but what has been called "the heart of hearts," our deep-down desires, goals, dreams, hopes, aspirations. What do you enjoy doing? What would make you spring out of bed every morning, other than a strong cup of coffee?

It can be put another way: What are we invested in? We should not think of this only in terms of money, but also in terms of time, resources, loyalties, hopes, etc. As a new year begins, perhaps this is a question worth pondering.

On the annual holy days, we frequently read the instructions in Deuteronomy 16:16-17 on giving an offering to God. Verse 17, however, applies to this question of "Where is your heart?": "Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which He has given you." On the surface, it may not seem to be relevant, but it indeed comes into play because what we are able to give depends on where we have placed our priorities. And we place our priorities where our hearts are.

Business people make sure that the resources of the company are expended on their core missions. They have to know what they really want to accomplish so that they can allocate the necessary resources to those chief operations or goals. A firm may direct a large portion of its resources to marketing, so it can get its name out before the demographic that will buy its products. For other enterprises, the priority might be research, as they want to put more money into making their products better and developing new products that will serve their clientele and increase profits. Yet others, perhaps those in service industries, may consider people to be the most important part of their business. These organizations emphasize customer relations and satisfaction. Where the priorities are decides where the resources go.

In the same way, a family may budget its resources for necessities: food, energy, rent or mortgage, clothing, automobile, education. Our priorities, however, are not always necessities, and this is where we may begin to go off the track. We can convince ourselves that certain things that are not really necessities are necessities. Food on the table, a roof over our heads, and clothing on our backs are necessities. High-definition televisions, DVDs, convection ovens, iPhones, PlayStations, and all the latest whiz-bang gadgets are not necessities, but we often convince ourselves that they are, having completely swallowed the drivel of advertisers.

This should lead us back to asking ourselves, "What are our priorities?" What is truly important to us? What do we really need versus what do we merely want? Where are our hearts?

Notice Jesus' instructions from Luke's version of part of the Sermon on the Mount:
But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:31-34)

Our Savior succinctly explains what our priorities are—where our hearts should be. Earlier, He had advised that we should not even worry about necessities. Nevertheless, what does He tell us to do here? He says, "Sell what you have, and give alms," so one element of our priorities is giving. This is not a command to give all our money away. What He says is modified by what His instruction concerning providing ourselves money bags: He does not want us to make ourselves destitute. In fact, He wants us to gather and increase treasure!

Jesus instructs us to spend our resources—whether it is time, energy, our concentration, or even our money—on the things that really matter, that will propel us toward the Kingdom of God, that will secure for us heavenly and eternal benefits. That is where our hearts should be: in the things that God also prizes.

Isaiah provides a clear and succinct description of what that treasure is: "The LORD is exalted, for He dwells on high; He has filled Zion with justice and righteousness. Wisdom and knowledge will be the stability of your times, and the strength of salvation; the fear of the LORD is His treasure" (Isaiah 33:5-6). God's treasure is the fear of the Lord, and that is where our hearts should be also.

Theologians sometimes quibble about the precise definition of "fear of the Lord," but a more general, more encompassing one may be better for our purposes. Simply put, the fear of the Lord is perceiving and accepting where we stand in relation to God and then acting appropriately. It is recognizing that God is vast and we are minuscule. He is magnificent, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing—among other things—and we are but worms. And once we have this fact firmly embedded in our minds, we live every second in the humility and fear of this awesome Being, for one with the proper fear of the Lord puts God, His will, and His goals first.

When we do this, the rest of life falls into place. This is not to say that all of our problems disappear. Certainly not. Nevertheless, we now have a template for making wise, godly decisions in ordering and conducting our other concerns, for "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). When our hearts are first and foremost unflinchingly loyal to God, we have set our course to achieve the greatest goal a human can desire, to please God and dwell eternally with Him in His Kingdom. Is that where your heart is?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Geopolitics of Israel

Forerunner, "WorldWatch," November-December 2010

A nation's or region's geography constrains its policy choices, especially in its international relations. This is essentially the definition of geopolitics. Where a nation is located—landlocked or coastal, northern hemisphere or southern, Eastern or Western, high latitude or low, etc.—and what geographical features the land possesses—mountains, rivers, coasts, deserts, forests, etc.—dictate to a great extent how it can and will react to most events and crises that affect it. Other factors, such as mineral wealth, arable land, and natural harbors, also play their parts.

Geopolitics is not an exact science—nations do act "outside the box" on occasion—but it provides a framework for understanding why nations decide to do one thing over another. For instance, a large nation like Russia, which has almost no natural barriers to invasion, will endeavor to create a series of buffer states between itself and its most powerful enemies to forestall aggression against it. Thus, since its rise to great power status, Russia has sought to establish and protect its "near abroad," the quasi-independent republics that line its western and southern perimeter. This fact of geography helps to explain Russia's domination and intervention in nations like Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the like.

Despite its small size, the land of Israel, on which the Bible's actions center, is not exempt from geographical and therefore geopolitical realities. Its size, shape, topographical features, and climate all shape its rulers' courses of action, as well as its enemies' options in coming against it. A serious student of the Bible will keep these factors in mind, especially when reading through the historical narratives found from Genesis to II Chronicles and beyond.

Israel has been an independent actor in three general periods in history: 1) from the invasion under Joshua until Judah's defeat by Nebuchadnezzar; 2) from the return of the Jewish exiles under Zerubbabel until Titus razed Jerusalem in AD 70; and 3) in its current manifestation as a nation since 1948. In all three periods, Israel has found itself struggling to retain its independence due to external imperial ambitions and internal tensions. This consistent political situation is a result of its unchanging geography.

Generally, Israel has stretched from southern Lebanon and the hill country in the north (often including the Golan Heights) to the Negev in the south—in effect, "from Dan to Beersheba," a Hebrew phrase that implies "all Israel" (Judges 20:1; I Samuel 3:20; II Samuel 24:2). On occasion, Israelites also ruled areas east of the Jordan River, but they never encroached far into Arabia or even into Sinai, for that matter. Only under a strong leader like David or Solomon did the borders venture much beyond the "Dan to Beersheba" rule. This holds true even today.

Deserts protect Israel from three directions, providing fairly deep buffer zones from enemies to the southwest, southeast, and east. The Sinai Desert holds off the Egyptians except when they are particularly strong, as in the days of Thutmose III and Ramses II, for example. The southeastern desert guards the approaches from Eilat/Aqaba at the northern end of the eastern arm of the Red Sea. Thus, it has not had to worry a great deal about an invasion from Arabia. Finally, the eastern desert, along with the Jordan River, makes attacking from that direction a risky proposition, especially if Israel holds both Judea and Samaria. Today, however, air forces considerably lessen the deserts' effectiveness as barriers to invasion.

Israel's greatest vulnerability lies in the north where few natural barriers exist, and history shows that this is the route most of its conquerors—excluding Egypt—have taken when invading the land. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans have all marched down the northern trade routes and through the northern valleys to lay waste to Samaria and Jerusalem. The only real check is the chokepoint between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee, a hilly area about 25 miles wide, where either direct confrontation or guerrilla tactics can stymie an approaching army.

Once through this area, to reach the wealthy coastal cities or to turn south toward the heart of Israel, an invading force would have to fight its way through the rich valleys of the northern hills. A decisive victory for the invader here could open the rest of the land to exploitation. This fact explains why Megiddo—Armageddon in Revelation 16:12-16—has been the site of many bloody battles in which imperial powers and determined defenders have contested for possession of the land.

Imperial powers have coveted the land of Israel because it forms part of a land bridge connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe. As geopolitical analyst Dr. George Friedman notes, "Israel therefore occupies what might be called the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere." If this area is successfully gained, it allows for both swift movement of troops and supplies along the eastern Mediterranean coast and secures maritime shipping lanes. As the crossroads of three continents, control of this narrow strip of land is fiercely contested.

Because it is an international magnet (attracting other ethnicities, religions, and commercial/cultural/political influences), and because its own internal geography creates different types of people (coastal, cosmopolitan merchants; northern farmers and warriors; and southern herdsmen and fighters), Israel's leaders must also deal with domestic tensions that threaten to tear the nation into a hundred pieces. When these divisions are minimal, Israel tends to be strong and able to hold off foreign incursions. However, when the nation is deeply divided, its chances of being overrun increase. Even today, Israel's prime ministers must often cobble together coalition governments to provide enough stability to hold its neighbors at bay.

As we read biblical history, these geopolitical factors frequently come into play in understanding why Israel's leaders acted as they did when faced with both internal and external crises. Keeping them in mind may also help us make sense of today's news accounts—and the events of the end time.