Proverbs 25

“We honor God for everything that He keeps out of sight; We honor kings for searching out, and bringing things to light.”  (Proverbs 25:2)

This is the twenty-fifth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 25, preceded by a brief reflection.

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Growing old doesn’t make one an expert in aging, any more than slicing a finger makes one a phlebotomist.  Still, with advancing years a person experiences changes in their body that are alien to the young.  There was a time when I didn’t think twice about my body mechanics – standing, bending, turning, and walking all came naturally; these days I am cautious before making any quick movement.  When I was young, my mind could at once hold onto multiple thoughts; these days when I enter a room, I often forget why I am there.  And increasingly, I am aware of the brevity of life as serious medical events and the loss of those I have known provide frequent reminders of mortality.

Still, aging also has its consolations.  For me, this includes time for reflection.  Even as my body slowly breaks down, I have the hope that I can continue to grow spiritually.  The Apostle Paul wrote of this hope, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”  (2 Corinthians 4:16)  As I look for reliable guidance for navigating this phase of my life, I find an essentially complete spirituality of aging distilled in a single verse – Proverbs 25:2.  “We honor God for everything that He keeps out of sight; We honor kings for searching out, and bringing things to light.”  Let me explain.

The first part of the verse, “We honor God for everything that He keeps out of sight,” relates to God’s invisibility and his inscrutable ways.  This is the mystery that the Apostle Paul captures in the doxology in Romans 11:33-36:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Yes, God’s ways are invisible, but he leaves markers.  “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  (Romans 1:20-21)  In other words, God reveals himself in the wonders of creation that he has made, and which can be contemplated by anyone with open eyes and a thankful heart.

My daily morning walk has become a time when I try to be more aware of God’s revelation in the natural world.  On my better days, I seek to savor the moment, the weather, seasonal changes, how I am feeling – aches and all, and give God thanks.  Some mornings the clouds and sun seem to dance as they declare the glory of God.  Often in Spring a cacophony of birdsongs lifts my heart to God.  And sometimes of a morning my friend Steve pulls up in his pickup truck.  Steve has had multiple heart surgeries and is a medical miracle in many ways.  When I ask how he is doing, his inevitable response is, “God is so good, he has given me another day.”

The second half of the verse, “We honor kings for searching out, and bringing things to light,” takes some parsing.  Recall that this was written by Solomon, who was a king with outstanding wisdom and knowledge.  “Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt.” (1 Kings 4:30)  No doubt Solomon had himself in mind when he wrote this verse.  These days we don’t have kings, and there are very few leaders who bring things to light – the politics of today being based more on disinformation than enlightenment.  So for this verse to have any currency, ‘kings’ must be understood as a metonymy for those who discover and bring things to light.  Indeed, the Message translation uses ‘scientists’ rather than kings.

But the salient point is not whether it is a king or scientist who brings something to light but that it is a flesh and blood person who is enlightening us with knowledge or otherwise lightening our load.  The contrast in this verse is between the hidden ways of God and the visible ways of people.  In both instances we are called to respond with honor that is grounded in thankfulness.  When someone provides a service, I thank them.  When someone is kind, I thank them.  When someone forgives me, I thank them.  Thankfulness is food for the soul – nourishing both the receiver and the giver.

The clarion call of the spiritual life is to thankfulness.  First, to God for our lives and all that is good and pure in creation; and second to those around us.  The Apostle Paul tells us, Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)  As we grow older, thankfulness in ever increasing measure becomes a moral imperative.  The author, Morris West writes, “At a certain age our lives simplify, and we need have only three phrases left in our spiritual vocabulary:  Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you!”

But it would be wrong to suggest that thankfulness is only for the twilight years, as it is a foundational virtue for the life of every follower of Christ.  Not only as a way of loving and honoring others, but as a road to a more satisfying life with fewer regrets as one ages.  For, as Ronald Rolheiser writes, “Many … deeply regret that during the healthiest and most productive years of their lives they were too driven and too unaware of the richness of their own lives to appreciate and enjoy what they were doing.  Instead of privilege, they felt burden; instead of gratitude, they felt resentment; and instead of joy, they felt anger.  One of the demons we wrestle with during our adult years is … a joylessness bordering on anger.”  (Sacred Fire)

One of the challenges we face throughout our lives is the tendency to take things for granted.  If we are not careful, our desire to get ahead or simply keep our head above water can turn into a singular focus on self.  This in turn can blind us to all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable.  When we take such blessings of God and the people around us for granted, it is but a small step to the cancer of entitlement.  And when this metastasizes in our soul, the stage is set for disappointment and bitterness in old age.

As followers of Christ, we want to live well – abundantly and generatively.  We also want to end well.  I know many people who have struggled with health issues as they have grown older – weakened hearts, failed kidneys, senility, various cancers, and the like.  No one I know rejoices at their maladies, nor should they.  Some are stoic, some complain, and some despair.  It can be a lonely journey – this final one of our mortal life.  But those who seem to navigate it with the most aplomb and grace are those with thankful hearts.

S

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1  These Proverbs are of Solomon,
that future scribes wrote down –
When Judah’s Hezekiah was,
the king who wore the crown.

***

2  We honor God for everything,
that He keeps out of sight;
We honor kings for searching out,
and bringing things to light.

3  As high as heavens are above,
and earth is deep below;
A king’s heart is unsearchable,
his mind no one can know.

***

4  Remove the dross from silver ore,
by purging what’s impure;
And then a silversmith can make,
a vessel to endure.

5  Remove the wicked from the king,
and keep them from his sight;
And then his throne will be preserved,
through what is just and right.

***

6  Don’t praise yourself before the king,
or tell him how you rate;
And do not stand or claim a place,
among the famed and great.

7  Much better he should say to you,
   “Step up and come to me;”
Than have him shame you in the eyes,
of his nobility.

***

8  Don’t be too quick to go to court,
a grievance to pursue;
For if a neighbor shames your word,
O what then will you do?

9  Instead, present your arguments,
in person face to face;
But don’t betray another’s trust,
in how you state your case.

10  For if you break a confidence,
then you will come to shame;
And evermore a bad report,
will fasten to your name.

***

11  Like apples of the finest gold,
upon a silver bed;
Is any word that’s fitly made,
and opportunely said.

12  Like earrings of the purest gold,
and ornaments so dear;
Is any warning from the wise,
upon a willing ear.

13  Like snow that comes at harvesttime,
refreshes all the land;
Is any faithful messenger,
to one who’s in command.

14  Like clouds and wind without some rain,
that’s needed for a drought;
Is one who boasts of giving gifts,
but never hands them out.

***

15  Through patience rulers can be coaxed,
to change how they are prone;
For gentle words can break a will,
that’s harder than a bone.

***

16  Don’t gorge yourself on honeycomb,
you find within a tree;
Too much and surely you’ll feel bad,
as sickly you will be.

17  Don’t go into your neighbors’ house,
too often as a guest;
Or they will hate the sight of you,
for being such a pest.

***

18  Like warring club or sharpened sword,
or arrow set to maim;
Is one who gives false evidence,
against a neighbor’s claim.

19  Like broken or decaying tooth,
or foot that is not sound;
Is trusting in a faithless soul,
when trouble comes around.

20  Like vinegar on open flesh,
or coat removed when cold;
Is anyone who sings a song,
a grieving heart can’t hold.

***

21  If your enemy is hungry,
give food to fill him up;
If thirsty give a welcome drink,
like water from a cup.

22  In doing this, then burning coals,
you’ll heap upon his head;
The Lord will then reward you for,
providing drink and bread.

***

23  Like wind that comes down from the north,
will certainly bring rain;
Is one whose gossiping provokes,
an angry look of pain.

***

24  Much better with a rooftop nook,
and solitary life;
Than sharing an entire house,
in conflict with a wife.

***

25  Like water to a thirsty soul,
so weary it can’t stand;
Is good news that is coming from,
a far and distant land.

26  Like springs with mud, or tainted wells,
which grime and trash defile;
Are righteous souls submitting to,
the wicked and the vile.

***

27  It is not good to overeat,
the honey from the comb;
Nor is it glorious to seek,
out glory for one’s own.

***

28  Like walls around a city that,
are split with breach and hole;
Is anyone with raging heart,
and lacking self-control.

Proverbs 24

“I passed a lazy person’s field, beyond a broken fence; and by the vineyard of someone, devoid of any sense.  Sharp thorns had sprung up everywhere, and weeds were all around; the stone wall that surrounded it, was strewn about the ground.”  (Proverbs 24:30-31)

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 24, preceded by a brief reflection.

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I have written previously about moving to Maine as a young man in late spring, 1974, and settling onto fifty acres of abandoned farmland with the goal of becoming self-sufficient.  It was my intention to follow in the footsteps of Helen and Scott Nearing who in their book “Living The Good Life,”described their life of organic farming and native material home building.  I was not a follower of Jesus at the time and therefore unfamiliar with Scripture.  But, in one sense, I followed the prescription in Proverbs 24:27, Prepare your fields by plowing them, and scattering your seeds; and only then construct a house for your domestic needs.”  For one of the first things I did was to have a local farmer plow an enormous 100 ft by 100 ft garden plot, which I mostly planted with corn, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, and lettuce.

Things went swimmingly in the garden for a few weeks as small green plants began to appear.  However, there was soon another sort of green that overspread the garden plot – a sort of creeping covering that had no respect for my carefully laid out rows and mounded hills.  I would later discover that this invader is a particularly tough weed appropriately referred to by the locals as ‘witchgrass.’  It is well named because it is devilishly difficult to control – particularly without pesticides, which I was loathe to employ due to my commitment to the organic method.  The only thing to do was to try to rip them out by their sprawling roots.  So, early one day I started down a row with fork hoe in hand.  Heat and dust arose as I shuffled and scratched my way along, until I suddenly realized I was under attack by black flies – a particular scourge of the region where I had settled.  Delivering a nasty bite, they leave a welt that can swell up and itch for weeks.  Hot, sore, and bitten I soon called it quits without having make any noticeable difference in the weeds.

I might have stuck with it longer, but it wasn’t just the weeds and insects that were disheartening.  As soon as lettuce started breaking through the soil, rabbits appeared and neatly trimmed the tops.  Given the size of the garden and my limited financial resources, fencing was out of the question.  Other pests too were soon chewing holes in the leaves of the potatoes and tomatoes.  The final blow came when a succession of hot days made irrigation essential.  The only water on the property was an abandoned hand-dug well several hundred yards away, which meant an almost impossible effort of dipping and hauling water by the bucketful.

Suffice it to say, I soon gave up the labor of the garden.  In spiritual terms, I was facing a crisis of believing vs. being.  On the one hand, I had the desire and intellectual belief to pursue an organic lifestyle.  On the other hand, I could not muster the internal fortitude to be an organic gardener.  It is a dilemma that many of us find in various endeavors, not least of which in our spiritual lives.  Alan Jones writes, “believing is closely related to being and to our refusal to be.  Tears flow when we begin to realize just how deep that terrible refusal goes.  Believing is never simply a matter of assent to a doctrine.  In fact, it is not primarily that. … To bring believing and being together can be a painful and tearful process.”  The Apostle Peter had just such a crisis, when believing that he was faithful, said he would never deny Jesus.  Yet before the coming dawn he denied the Lord three times.  Who cannot feel pity for Peter when reading, “So he went out and wept bitterly.”  (Matthew 26:75)

Now my failure as a gardener was hardly an occasion for tears, nor was it a great spiritual failure as such.  Still, my untended garden did reveal a spiritual principle that is captured in Proverbs 24:30-34.

I passed a lazy person’s field, beyond a broken fence;
And by the vineyard of someone, devoid of any sense.
Sharp thorns had sprung up everywhere, and weeds were all around;
The stone wall that surrounded it, was strewn about the ground.
I carefully considered all, these things that I had seen;
And learned a simple lesson from, what knowledge I could glean.
A little too much slumbering, a little too much sleep;
A little folding of the hands, determines what you reap.
For poverty will show up like, a robber in the night;
And scarcity like one who’s armed, and ready for a fight.

Taken literally, one could say that these verses describe my attempt at organic gardening.  My garden was soon so overrun with weeds that it could hardly be distinguished from the surrounding field.  The overgrown garden in Proverbs 24 is obviously a warning against indolence and is intended to encourage us to work hard or else we will end up with nothing.  In other words, we reap what we sow, which pretty accurately describes my fall ‘harvest’ in 1974 of a few smallish potatoes.

But these verses hold a deeper application.  Namely, they can be understood as a metaphor for a soul in distress – a soul where weeds are unchecked and where there is no wall to protect it from invaders.  Agricultural metaphors appear throughout the Bible to anchor spiritual principles in terms familiar to an agrarian people.  Although in today’s world, we are less connected to the soil, the metaphors still resonate.  We have no difficulty in following Jesus’ metaphors, and their longer cousins, parables, about planting, growing, and harvesting that he used to explain the spiritual life.  Still, for those of us who are not gardeners, we can overlook some of what they have to offer.

Let me suggest three ways in which the soul is like a garden.

First, a garden is hard work, demanding constant care and attention.  Weeds, diseases, predators, and drought are ever-present threats to the untended garden, and are quick to gain a foothold if we are inattentive.   Similarly, soul work is hard work.  Hardly a day goes by when we are not faced with some physical or emotional problem that touches an underlying neurosis or pathology.  We allow these to run their course at the soul’s peril.  This idea is captured by Paul who wrote, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”  (Ephesians 4:26)  It’s easy to believe these words, but much harder to practice them.  When I am criticized, it can feel like a black fly bite; when I am cheated, it can feel like the sun burning my skin; and when I am offended it can feel like hot dry dust in my nose.

Humility, compassion, and forgiveness are hard.  These do not happen automatically – my automatic response is like that to my garden – follow my flesh.  This is why Jesus uses terms such as dying to oneself to describe the process.  And it is why the Christian life is one of ongoing growth and conversion, if you will.  Again in the words of Alan Jones, “Conversion is not a once and for all event, but a way of psychological and spiritual formation that takes a lifetime.  Often the great and first step is confused with the whole lifelong process.  Conversion experiences, life-changing though they may be, are but the first step on a long journey.”

Second, a garden grows through natural processes over which we have no control.  We can prepare the soil, plant the seeds, water, and cultivate.  But no matter how hard we try, we can never make the plant grow.  We cannot create any of the raw ingredients nor can we produce life despite our best efforts.  Natural life processes are the responsibility of God, who keeps his side of the bargain.  In much the same way soul work is not entirely up to me.  Indeed, without God it is impossible.  When we take steps to deny ourselves, to be less defensive and selfish, and to be more forgiving and generous, God works a miracle in our soul.

There is no getting around it, a bountiful harvest comes when we work cooperatively with God.  If we sow to please the Spirit, and persevere in doing what is right and good, then we will reap a harvest.  (Galatians 6:8-9).  And what is that harvest?  It is the spiritual fruit of, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23)  God doesn’t produce spiritual fruit in us without our efforts, and our efforts avail us nothing without God.  On this, the Biblical record is clear.

Third, a garden takes time to grow.  Some plants like lettuce may yield a harvest after a matter of weeks.  Others, like rhubarb, several seasons.  And some fruit trees up to ten years.  In the spiritual realm we are an impatient people, preferring instant conversion – say a prayer and we’re done.  But this is simply not born out by Scripture or the experience of the ages.

My sister-in-law, Joanie, is a master gardener who not only believes in the organic lifestyle but lovingly practices it.  Every year she faces the same challenges I did in 1974, but with a different outlook and a radically different result.  Physically, it is no easier for her than it was for me, but she applies herself in a much different way.  Where I hated the dirt and the dust, she loves getting her hands in the soil and working the good earth.  Where I dreaded the heat of the sun, she revels at the warmth by remembering the long cold winter that preceded the spring.  I am pretty sure that she does not love the insect bites, but has learned to avoid and/or ignore them for the greater payoff of a bountiful harvest.

God promises a bountiful spiritual harvest for those who do the necessary soul work.  In the words of the prophet, “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.  You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”  (Isaiah 58:9-11)

S

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Saying 19

1  Do not be envious of those,
whose wickedness you see;
Do not associate with them,
or seek their company.

2  For there is violence in their hearts,
destruction in their eyes;
And from their lips there’s devilment,
deceitfulness and lies.

Saying 20

3  Through wisdom is a house put up,
so it will long endure;
By understanding it is made,
to always be secure.

4  Through knowledge every room inside,
is surely filled with care;
With riches that are beautiful,
and treasures bright and rare;

Saying 21

5  A warrior whose ways are wise,
has power, strength and might;
The one who knows and understands,
is strengthened for the fight.

6  For guidance is imperative,
if one must wage a war;
With many thoughtful counselors,
a victory is sure.

Saying 22

7  Now wisdom is too high for fools,
because their minds are weak;
And so when court is being held,
they do not try to speak.

Saying 23

8  The one devising evil plans,
and plotting wicked things;
Will be perceived as one who schemes,
and mischief making brings.

9  For devilish and foolish plans,
are sinful to devise;
And people hate the one who schemes,
who mocks whatever’s wise.

Saying 24

10  If you give up or fall apart,
when trouble comes along;
It surely demonstrates that you,
are really not so strong.

Saying 25

11  Be sure to rescue those in need –
those led away to die;
Yes, hold those staggering towards death,
don’t let them pass you by.

12  For if you say, “I did not know,”
remember there is One;
Who weighs the heart and knows your life,
repaying what you’ve done.

Saying 26

13  My child, find honey where you can,
for it is good to eat;
The drippings from the honeycomb,
upon your tongue are sweet.

14  Now wisdom’s also good for you,
it helps your soul feel right;
And if you get it you will have,
a future hope that’s bright.

Saying 27

15  Don’t lie in wait, you wicked one,
where righteous souls reside;
Don’t plunder or destroy their home,
and what they have inside.

16  Though seven times the righteous fall,
each time they’ll rise again;
Not so the wicked who will trip,
when crises strike at them.

Saying 28

17  Don’t gloat upon your enemies,
when fallen on the ground;
And when they stumble find no joy,
or let your heart abound.

18  For otherwise, the Lord will see,
and surely disapprove;
His anger then will turn from them,
His wrathfulness remove.

Saying 29

19  Don’t let the wicked cause you grief,
or let them worry you;
And don’t be envious of them,
no matter what they do.

20  For wicked people have no hope,
on which they can depend;
And like a lamp wick dampened out,
they too will meet their end.

Saying 30

21  My child have reverence for the Lord,
and fear the king as well;
Do not associate with those,
who rise up and rebel.

22  For rebels face destruction from,
the Lord and from the king;
And who can know what misery,
the two of them can bring?

Further Sayings of the Wise

23  Now here are sayings of the wise,
for living as you should:
The first is that inequity,
in judging is not good.

24  Whoever says to those with guilt,
“I find you innocent;”
Will be accursed by peoples’ cries,
and nations in dissent.

25  But those convicting criminals,
will know prosperity;
They’ll revel in delightfulness,
and blessings all can see.

***

26  A truthful answer spoken out,
with honesty and grace;
Is like a kiss upon the lips –
a delicate embrace.

***

27  Prepare your fields by plowing them,
and scattering your seeds;
And only then construct a house,
for your domestic needs.

***

28  Don’t testify without just cause,
against your neighbor’s sake;
And do not let your words deceive;
or ever falsehoods make.

29  Don’t say that, “I will do to them;
   what they have done to me;
I’ll pay them back for what they did,
   and act accordingly.”

***

30  I passed a lazy person’s field,
beyond a broken fence;
And by the vineyard of someone,
devoid of any sense.

31  Sharp thorns had sprung up everywhere,
and weeds were all around;
The stone wall that surrounded it,
was strewn about the ground.

32  I carefully considered all,
these things that I had seen;
And learned a simple lesson from,
what knowledge I could glean.

33  A little too much slumbering,
a little too much sleep;
A little folding of the hands,
determines what you reap.

34  For poverty will show up like,
a robber in the night;
And scarcity like one who’s armed,
and ready for a fight.

Proverbs 23

“My child, if it is in your heart, that wisdom comes to dwell; then joy and gladness will invade, and fill my heart as well.”  (Proverbs 23:15)

This is the twenty-third in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 23, preceded by a brief reflection in verse.

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I call your attention, to this my reflection, of Proverbs in part twenty-three.
These things that I mention, about this collection, are needless as you will agree.
Still I don’t think Solomon, would need some cobalamin, if he were to read what I write.
And hopefully you, will find your way through, while pondering these with delight.

Before I commence, to try to condense, my thinking of what these all mean.
I’ll firstly spell out, so there’s not a doubt, these Sayings will total thirteen.
The first to appear, as this will make clear, is Six just below in this queue.
The first five you see, are reckoned to be, in Proverbs in part twenty-two.

Saying Six

Don’t crave any offer, a ruler may proffer, to come to his table to eat.
It’s better you hold, a knife blade that’s cold, to threaten your throat like it’s meat.
For surely you’ll find, he’s not being kind, in what he’s attempting to do.
But rather his aim, is forming a claim, to what he’ll require of you.

Saying Seven

The next Saying in, will sound like a sin, to those who make riches their goal.
But straining for wealth, is harmful to health, while also eroding the soul.
For gold that sprouts feathers, without any tethers, can seem an impossible thing.
Still many agree, that treasures soon flee, like eagles when taking to wing.

Saying Eight

Don’t eat what a host, is offering most, when grudgingly brought into view.
He’s keeping a count – the total the amount – of all he is sharing with you.
Although you may think, when telling you ‘drink,’ that seemingly he is sincere.
But if you partake, your stomach will ache, and sickness will follow I fear.

Saying Nine

Now look all around, before you propound, any wisdom that’s at your command.
For lurking about, without any doubt, are some who will not understand.
I’m speaking of fools, who don’t have the tools, to comprehend words that are wise.
There’s no turning off, their tongues as they scoff, and criticize things they despise.

Saying Ten

Do not rearrange, or otherwise change, a marker constructed with stones.
And never trespass, or step on the grass, that any poor orphan child owns.
For there’s a Defender, a mighty contender, who’s hardy and powerfully strong.
He won’t be denied, but comes alongside, to fight against what you’ve done wrong.

Saying Eleven

The next Saying states, with simple mandates, some things that are good for your soul.
A sure place to start, is found in the heart, with discipline making you whole.
Another appears, with listening ears, receiving whatever is true.
When these things you try, and seek to apply, then wisdom you’ll surely accrue.

Saying Twelve

Now Saying Twelve seems, to go to extremes, in giving a child discipline.
It briefly describes, without diatribes, the way to chastise for a sin.
Suggesting a rod, in order to prod, is needed at times to coerce.
It says that the goal, is saving a soul, to keep it from something far worse.

Saying Thirteen

My child if you seek, and carefully keep, a heart in which wisdom can dwell;
Then my heart will know, and certainly grow, in happy contentment as well.
Indeed it will fill, my innermost will, with praises and joyful delight;
When what you convey, with words that you say, is true and unfailingly right.

Saying Fourteen

Don’t envy someone, for sins they have done, when going along their own way.
But honor the Lord, and with one accord, continue to fear Him all day.
For if you revere, the One who is dear, there’s hope that’s remaining for you.
And you’ll know for sure, what He has in store, will certainly never fall through.

Saying Fifteen

Now listen with care, these things that I share – let wisdom be always your source.
Make sure that your mind, and heart are inclined, to follow upon the right course.
Do not dissipate, or settle your fate, by drinking or eating unchecked.
For all such excess, produces a mess, and leaves you most horribly wrecked.

Saying Sixteen

Your parents deserve, the honor you serve, so turn not from them when they’re old.
Acquire the truth, in spite of your youth, so they’ll see your wisdom unfold.
When children are wise, it’s not a surprise, that father and mother rejoice.
And find that their days, have gladness that stays, and happiness shows in their voice.

Saying Seventeen

My son if you’re smart, you’ll give me your heart, and follow the things I have found –
That unfaithfulness, will end in a mess, is wisdom that always is sound.
By this we deduce, a woman who’s loose, is lying in wait for some prey.
A thief if you will, who’s using her skill, to try to tempt someone astray.

Saying Eighteen

O who has known pain, and suffered in vain, and felt their life slowly decline?
It’s those whose eyes stare, without any care, at many a bottle of wine.
For wine’s like a snake, whose bite makes you shake, no matter what ever you think.
And sorry to say, it’s tempting to stray, and sample just one final drink.

**********

Saying 6

1   When any ruler beckons you,
to have a bite or two;
Consider very carefully,
what’s now in front of you.

2  For if you’re one who tends to eat,
whatever’s in your sight;
Pretend a knife is at your throat,
to curb your appetite.

3  Don’t crave what rulers serve to you,
or hunger for their sweets;
Deceptive is their offered food –
illusive are their eats.

Saying 7

4   Don’t spend yourself in getting rich,
don’t labor hard for wealth;
But demonstrate some self-control –
be wise and check yourself.

5  No sooner have you looked at wealth,
then it is out of sight;
Like eagles that have spread their wings,
it suddenly takes flight.

Saying 8

6   Don’t eat the food of any host,
begrudging in his ways;
And do not crave the wondrous fare,
beguiling to your gaze.

7  For in his heart your host believes,
the cost is very dear;
Though he may tell you, “eat and drink,”
his heart is not sincere.

8  Then what you eat will make you sick,
so you will spit it out;
Your compliments will go to waste,
with this there is no doubt.

Saying 9

9   Don’t speak when there are fools around,
or talk so they will hear;
For they will scorn the prudent thoughts,
and wisdom that they hear.

Saying 10

10   Don’t move or rearrange the place,
of ancient boundary stones;
Or take a step upon the fields,
that any orphan owns.

11  For there is a Defender Kin,
who’s powerful and strong;
And he himself will take their side,
and fight against your wrong.

Saying 11

12  To sound instruction set your heart,
to discipline adhere;
To words of knowledge turn your ears,
so wisdom they will hear.

Saying 12

13  Don’t hesitate to discipline,
when children go astray;
For surely they will not succumb,
to punishment per se.

14  For striking children with a rod,
when discipline’s the goal;
Can save them from the kind of death,
that devastates the soul.

Saying 13

15  My child, if it is in your heart,
that wisdom comes to dwell;
Then joy and gladness will invade,
and fill my heart as well.

16  Indeed, my inmost being will,
rejoice with great delight;
Whenever what your lips convey,
unfailingly is right.

Saying 14

17  Don’t let your heart be envious,
of sinners and their way;
But honor and revere the Lord,
and fear Him all the day.

18  For surely there’s a future hope,
by fearing in the Lord;
A hope that will not be cut off,
for you this is assured.

Saying 15

19  My children, listen carefully –
let wisdom be your source;
Direct your mind and set your heart,
upon the proper course.

20  Don’t be like those who dissipate,
themselves on wine that’s sweet;
And don’t be like the gluttonous,
who gorge themselves on meat.

21  For those who drink and eat too much,
will come to poverty;
And drowsiness will cover them,
in ragged penury.

Saying 16

22  Your father gave you life, so hear,
his words as they unfold;
And don’t despise your mother’s life,
when she is grey and old.

23  Acquire truth despite the cost,
don’t let it slip away;
Buy wisdom and instruction too,
and insight everyday.

24  The father of a righteous child,
has joy that won’t abate;
For he who fathers one who’s wise,
will surely celebrate.

25  May gladness fill your parents’ hearts,
may both of them rejoice;
May she who bore and nurtured you,
give happiness a voice.

Saying 17

26  My son, please give your heart to me,
and keep me in your gaze;
O let your eyes watch carefully,
observing all my ways.

27  A prostitute is like a pit –
a sinking cavity;
A harlot like a narrow well,
from which you can’t get free.

28  For wantonness is like a thief,
that lies in wait for prey;
She multiplies unfaithfulness,
so men will go astray.

Saying 18

29  O who has sorrow, who has woe?
Who gripes of strife as well?
And who has bruises without cause,
and bloodshot eyes that swell?

30  It’s those who tarry far too long,
around a glass of wine;
And those who sample mixtures of,
the harvest of the vine.

31  Don’t let your eyes be drawn to wine,
when ruby red it glows;
Or when it sparkles in the cup,
and smoothly down it goes.

32  For in the end it’s like a snake,
that bites while in your grasp;
A deadly poison stinging you,
like venom from an asp.

33  And you’ll behold the oddest sights,
and see the strangest things;
Your mind will wander aimlessly,
with visions in the wings.

34  You’ll be like one asleep at sea –
on waters that are vast;
Like one who’s lying up above,
upon the highest mast.

35  You’ll say, “I did not feel their blows,
   so I’m not hurt, I think!
When will I wake from slumbering,
   to have just one more drink?”

Proverbs 22

“A name that’s good exceeds all wealth, and riches you can hold; To be esteemed is preferable, to silver coins and gold.”  (Proverbs 22:1)

This is the twenty-second in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 22, preceded by a brief reflection.

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To be well thought of by others is deeply embedded in our human nature.  It is a rare person indeed who does not want to be esteemed and liked by those around them.  Solomon puts it like this, “A name that’s good exceeds all wealth, and riches you can hold; To be esteemed is preferable, to silver coins and gold.”  (Proverbs 22:1)  The desire to be perceived in a favorable light by others is no doubt the way of the world.  But is it the way of the kingdom of God?  Is striving to achieve a good name and to be esteemed by those around us compatible with the way of Christ?  The answer is complicated.

To begin with, it must be conceded that having a good name has inherent value – more than silver and gold according to Solomon.  Certainly, it is preferable to having a bad name, or being despised by others.  It takes but a moment’s reflection to see the damage that can result when evil is committed by those who profess allegiance to Christ.  The clergy abuse scandals of recent years being a painful reminder.  At the same time, the desire for a good reputation can spur us on to good deeds – from the simple to profound.  Examples abound:  cleaning our yard to be liked by our neighbors; reading a book to be affirmed by a teacher; giving a gift to be thanked by the recipient; volunteering our time to be perceived as caring; or writing a blog to receive critical acclaim.  But it is at this point in our reflection that we begin to realize that seeking to have a good name carries with it a spiritual poison pill – namely pride.

For it is pride – the excessive preoccupation with one’s own self – that is the root of seeking approval from others.  You will recall that Jesus took a rather dim view of Pharisees who focused on how they were perceived by others.  “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”  (Matthew 23:5-7)

There is nothing wrong in receiving praise.  Rather, it is seeking it out; in other words, making esteem our objective that is contrary to the way of Christ.  Jesus described this in the parable of the wedding feast.  “But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.  For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 14:10-11)  Jesus is not against people being esteemed.  Indeed, his appeal in the story is to the very human desire to receive acclaim.  ‘Take the lowest spot,’ says Jesus and then you will experience the best kind of esteem.  But if this were the point of the parable – a better way to be rewarded – we are bound to be disappointed.  For what happens if the host ignores us and does not invite us ‘up to a better place?’  The point that I believe Jesus is making is that our focus should not be on ourselves.   Humility does not ask ‘What’s in it for me?’  If recognition and affirmation happens naturally, terrific, but it is not to be our priority.  This is clear from the remainder of the parable where Jesus tells the host that when he has a feast to invite the poor and marginalized rather than those who can repay him with return invitations.

When our goal is to be liked and esteemed by others, the risk is more than disappointment.  Inevitably it results in hurt feelings and broken relationships.  I know this from my own pathetic attempts over the years to be affirmed by other people.  I truly regret the amount of emotional energy I have wasted in this regard.  I don’t understand the psychological reasons for this, although I suspect it stems from early feelings of rejection and inadequacy.  I am convinced that seeking to be liked by others is futile because no one can control the actions and feelings of others.  I also know that when I do not receive the affirmation I desire, my feelings inevitably turn to anger and rejection of those whose favor I sought.

Henri Nouwen wrote about a time in his life that he felt neglected by a friend.  Eventually there was a confrontation where, in Henri’s words, his friend challenged me to move out of the center and stop acting as if my life were the only one affected by true friendship.  He, too, had a life; he, too, had his struggles; he, too, had unfulfilled needs and imperfections.”  (“Discernment,” p 75)  Henri goes on to write about how this simple observation had a profound impact on their relationship and on Henri’s relationship with others, by showing him that he needed to ask Christ himself to be to be the true center of the relationship.  In his words, “I learned that … true friendship requires closeness, affection, support, and mutual encouragement, but also distance, space to grow, freedom to be different, and solitude.  To nurture both aspects of a relationship, we must experience a deeper and more lasting affirmation than any human relationship can offer.” (76)

The realization that Christ, and no one else, must be at the center of our lives is easier said than accomplished.  Still, it is the way of God.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God?  Or am I trying to please people?  If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”  (Galatians 1:10)  And according to the Prophet Jeremiah, the Lord says, Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.”  (Jeremiah 22:5)  Our focus must be on the Lord and not on our good name or being esteemed by others.  It is what Jesus means when he tells us to, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  (Matthew 6:33)

The kingdom of God is an upside-down world where the first will be last and the last first, and where acclaim comes from following the way of God.  The movie Chariots of Fire tells the true story about the 1924 Olympics and Eric Liddell, the British 100 meter champion from Scotland.  When traveling to the Olympic Games, Liddell, a devout Christian, discovers that preliminary heats for his race will occur on the Sabbath.  Liddle refuses to run even though it will cost him his one chance for Olympic glory.  Through a surprising twist, Liddle gets substituted into the 400 meter final.  As all runners know, the prospects of moving up to the longer distance is incredibly difficult.  Before the race, an American competitor, sprinter Jackson Scholz, who knows the sacrifice Liddell has made, hands him a note of support.  “‘Those who honor me, I will honor.’  (1 Samuel 2:30).”  Eric runs and wins the race to great acclaim.

Unfortunately, every story doesn’t end like this.  Not every righteous act leads to the victor’s stand and a gold medal.  Oftentimes, it feels just the opposite.  Liddell himself spent his years after the Olympics as a missionary to China, where he was killed in 1945 by the Japanese occupiers.  Worldly honors fade with time.  Not many of us would know about Eric Liddell today if it were not for the movie.  With few exceptions, people are soon forgotten after death.  But honor and esteem are not bound by time or subject to the vagaries of human memories.  For a golden crown awaits all who have been faithful.  As it is written: “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.  …  All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”   (1 Peter 5:4-6)

S

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1  A name that’s good exceeds all wealth,
and riches you can hold;
To be esteemed is preferable,
to silver coins and gold.

2  The rich and poor share equally,
in one thing that’s the same;
The Lord God made each one of them,
for from His hand they came.

3  The prudent see when danger’s near,
and find a hideaway;
The foolish take no heed of it,
and pay for their delay.

4  For everyone who fears the Lord,
and doesn’t harbor pride;
There’s honor and abundant wealth,
and life that will betide.

5  Along the paths the wicked walk,
sharp thorns and snares appear;
So those who would preserve their life,
will purposely stay clear.

6  Train children when they’re very young,
to live the proper way;
And when they’re old they will not turn,
or from that pathway stray.

7  The poor are governed by the rich,
they’re ruled by them alone;
While borrowers are servants to,
the one who makes a loan.

8  Whoever sows injustices,
will reap calamity;
Destruction will defeat the rod,
they wield so angrily.

9  The generous and merciful,
will find their own lives blessed;
Whenever sharing food with one,
who’s needy and hard-pressed.

10  Drive out the mocker from your midst,
and fighting disappears;
No longer will there be affronts,
no more abuse or sneers.

11  The one who loves a heart that’s pure,
and speaks with words of grace;
Will have a friendship with the king,
and look upon his face.

12  The eyes of God watch carefully,
that knowledge never dies;
By overthrowing every word,
the faithless speak as lies.

13  The sluggard says, “I can’t go out –
   a lion’s roaming there;
If I emerge then I’ll be killed,
   within the public square.”

14  The mouth of an adulteress,
is like a gaping pit;
The man with whom the Lord is cross,
will plummet into it.

15  There’s folly in a youngster’s heart,
that’s tightly bound within;
The way to drive it out is by,
the use of discipline.

16  Whoever persecutes the poor,
to live in luxury;
Or gives a gift to those with wealth,
will come to poverty.

[Thirty Sayings of the Wise]

17  Incline your ear and hear these words –
these sayings of the wise;
Apply your heart to what I know,
and all that I advise.

18  For it is pleasing when you keep,
this wisdom in your heart;
To have it ready on your lips,
so it will not depart.

19  So that your confidence and trust,
may rest upon the Lord;
I teach this wisdom unto you,
so you will be assured.

20  And thus I write these thirty things –
these sayings just for you;
Of knowledge that’s enlightening,
and counsel that is true.

21  These sayings teach you honesty,
in what you speak about;
So you can give a true report,
to those who sent you out.

[Saying 1]
22  Do not exploit the poor because,
they live in poverty;
Don’t crush the destitute in court,
or hurt them needlessly.

23  For God will be their advocate –
the Lord will intercede;
By robbing life from anyone,
who robs from those in need.

[Saying 2]
24  Don’t seek to make a friend with those,
with anger in their hearts;
And don’t associate with those,
whose anger quickly starts.

25  For if you’re close to angry souls,
you may adopt their ways;
And get entangled in the snares,
attached to their mores.

[Saying 3]
26  Don’t be like those who shake their hands,
to guarantee a debt;
Or promise to secure a loan,
by pledging an asset.

27  For if you lack the means to pay,
when told the loan is due;
Your very bed will be removed –
pulled out from under you.

[Saying 4]
28  Do not remove or change the place,
of any boundary stone;
Your ancestors established them,
to mark out what they own.

[Saying 5]
29  Those skilled in work will serve a king,
when practicing their trade;
They will not serve in front of those,
of lowly rank and grade.

Christmas

There’s many a tale, that’s told without fail, when Christmas is coming around;
It spreads every year, when December is near, with words from the quaint to profound. 
For when the snow comes, and there’s plenty of rum, and corner lots sell evergreens, 
Each mama and pap, sets tots on their lap, explaining to them what it means. 

Some mention the fall, before it turns raw, and color is still in the leaves, 
Before Turkey day, and skies have turned gray, and ice cycles drip from the eves. 
It’s then Christmas starts beguiling our hearts, with visions to which we can cling, 
Through layers of trope, they appeal to the hope, of joyful glad tidings they bring. 

Now many confess, that Christmas is best, when Santa Clause lands on the roof; 
There’s nothing to fear when tiny reindeer, are pawing with each frozen hoof. 
That jolly old elf, doesn’t think of himself, but only the children in bed; 
He tries to be quiet, but not being spry-et, he bumps down the chimney instead. 

A few who are old, are sure to unfold, this story about Christmastime – 
Of balsam fir trees, that sway in the breeze, but cut down while still in their prime. 
And though it seems sad, for many a lad, that conifers meet such a fate, 
The Christmas tree dressed, as they can attest, is what makes this holiday great. 

For some it’s the music, and all of the lyrics, that come with each Christmastime song; 
Can Drummer Boy’s beat, that’s rum pum pum sweet, be ever considered as wrong? 
From Orient kings, to Angels that sing, these melodies don’t let us pout; 
But played from November and all through December, will surely make some people shout. 

For others the reason, that’s given each season, why Christmas is something to see, 
Is all of the presents, that look very pleasant, when lovingly placed neath a tree; 
With wrappings of red, tied up with gold thread, each holding a secret surprise; 
It’s not just receiving, but also the giving, that’s certainly one of the highs. 

Still many will say, the joy of the day, is found in the goodies they favor; 
Like fruitcake to munch, and chestnuts to crunch, and cups of hot chocolate to savor. 
From peppermint candies, to white frosted sandies, and sugarplums looking so grand, 
There’s nothing like food, to alter one’s mood, and make Christmas tummies expand. 

And then there are parties, for those who are hearty, that seem like they never will end; 
It’s not arbitrary, that people feel merry, when having good times with a friend. 
But those who hate red, have something to dread, when planning the clothing they’ll wear, 
And those who loathe green, can make quite a scene, ahead of a Christmas affair. 

Now I’d be remiss, in stories like this, not to mention the sending of cards; 
For some it’s the height, of Christmas delight, to mail out their Yuletide regards. 
Still, glitter that sticks, to fingers and fists, can make us feel anxious and vexed; 
No wonder its shine has receded with time, replaced by cheap emails and texts. 

For faithful believers, it causes them shivers, to think of the One who was born; 
Protected from danger, asleep a manger, that very first Christmas day morn. 
I know it seems wild, but the birth of this child, is where Christmas always begins; 
Christ came from above, to teach us of love, and take away all of our sins. 

One more thing I’d mention, and draw your attention, is found in the Carol of Dickens; 
For the story of Scrooge, is really quite huge, and makes many spirit a quicken. 
I’m speaking of change, through lives rearranged, so kindness will never depart; 
For always we’ll labor, to love on our neighbor, unless there’s a change in our heart. 

Now let me submit, before calling quits, that Christmas is captured in this –
The total collection, of all of our reflections, that joyfully fill us with bliss. 
Like Santa and deer, and music and cheer, and packages under a tree; 
And God who brings peace, so conflicts will cease, and wonderful blessings there be. 

S

Proverbs 21

When one persists in righteousness, and seeks to do what’s kind; it’s certain that abundant life, and honor they will find.”  (Proverbs 21:21)

This is the twenty-first in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 21, preceded by a brief reflection.

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I am a sucker for kindness.  And I don’t think I am alone.  There is something that happens when we observe or experience kindness that weakens our defenses and, if only for a moment, softens our hearts.  For those with eyes to see, examples abound.  Here is a stranger hurrying to help an elderly man who stumbles in a parking lot.  Here a coach embracing her young players after losing a game.  Here a shopper encouraging a harried clerk who has been berated by an angry customer.  Here a walker stopping to listen to a neighbor.

Kindness is a foundational Christian virtue, shown by intentional and voluntary acts of friendship, generosity, and thoughtfulness.  While other virtues such as compassion, humility, and patience can also manifest themselves in action, they can also be passive.  So, for example, a Christian can feel genuine compassion for a person but not necessarily act on the feeling.  Not so with kindness, which by its very nature requires action.

One measure of the importance of kindness is seen in the destructiveness of unkindness.  I hardly need to mention the division caused by those in the public sphere who use vitriolic words and actions.  Nor the harm caused by those in private relationships who direct their selfishness and anger at the people around them.  Nothing could be further from the heart of Christ than unkind words and actions.  For he is the one about whom it is written, A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”  (Matthew 12:20)

Genuine kindness carries with it the power of life.  In Proverbs 21:21, Solomon tells us – When one persists in righteousness, and seeks to do what’s kind; it’s certain that abundant life, and honor they will find.”  Who among us hasn’t felt this power when we have been the recipient of unmerited kindness?  Perhaps we failed in some responsibility or task and received a hug rather than condemnation; or perhaps we were depressed and received words of encouragement; or perhaps we lost our way in the darkness and were given a light.

But there is yet a greater power in kindness – which is the power to change us into kinder people.  This is the story of Jean Valjean told by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables when Bishop Myriel first provides the ex-convict Jean Valjean shelter for the night and then gives him silverware that Valjean has stolen from his house.  Valjean is so moved by the kindness of the bishop that his life is transformed into one of kindness towards others.  It is a good illustration of the words of Sophocles, “Kindness begets kindness evermore.” Sometimes seeing kindness in another may be all we need to discover it in ourselves.

I remember a time when I was the recipient of unmerited kindness from a neighbor.  The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a season of great social unrest reflected in the hippy counterculture – a global youth movement that tested the limits of incumbent social mores, particularly those of sex, drugs, and music.  Communal living was common, and many hippies eventually moved from cities to rural areas where they could live in harmony with nature.  For many countryfolk, the influx of hippies with their long hair, different customs and beliefs, and even language, was perceived as a threat.  No wonder that the young people were often met with suspicion and hostility.  There were, of course, exceptions – people who treated the newcomers with kindness.  I was fortunate to live down the road from one such person.

I have written previously about buying abandoned farmland in Palmyra, Maine in the early 1970’s with the idea of living closer to the land.  I was not a hippy although being from ‘away,’ living in a tent, and having long hair no doubt pegged me as one to the locals.  My closest neighbors were a middle-aged couple and their son who lived in an old farmhouse on a hill above my property.  The wife, Juanita, was a true native, having lived her entire life within a five-mile radius.  If she had any concerns about hippy ‘out-of-staters’ moving in, she didn’t show it.  She could easily have ignored me, but to my surprise showed kindness after kindness.  It wasn’t long until I was invited to Saturday dinner of homemade baked beans and fresh rolls made from scratch.  This quickly turned into a standing invitation.  When I got a teaching job that fall, Juanita insisted on washing and ironing my shirts. And though I was able to shower at school in the morning (having no water or electricity in the cabin I eventually built), she insisted I use their only bathtub to wash over the weekend.

After a while, I discovered that Juanita was a Christian – attending a small Baptist church in a neighboring town.  She did not wear her faith on her sleeve, but simply revealed it by her many kind acts.  I don’t recall her talking about her faith as such except to extend an invitation to go to her church (an offer that regretfully I never took her up on).  She did say that she never argued matters of faith with others – a reticence that I found most refreshing.  And even though I got the sense that her church had a strict fundamentalist bent, she had nonetheless acquired the heart of Christ for the outsider.  Hers was a great example of the quote from Frederick W. Faber (author of ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’), “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.”  For over time, Juanita’s kindness was a powerful witness to me of an authentic faith.

Kindness does not get a lot of emphasis in the Bible, often relegated to a supporting role, a single virtue among many.  For example, Paul tells us that “love is patient, love is kind, … .”  (1 Corinthians 13:4)  This of course is the way of Christ who places love at the heart of the great commandment – “Love the Lord your God … and Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37, 39)  Over and over, we are admonished to love each other, to love our neighbor, even to love our enemies.  However, I believe that the commandment to love others has worn a bit thin by over-familiarity.  For it is the sheer breadth and scope of love that is also its weakness.  It is asked to carry so much meaning that it can lose its punch.  Not only are we to love everyone, but it is multifaceted as we see in the sweeping description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  I wonder how many of us have become so overwhelmed with the commandment to love that we have come to believe that simply not harming another person is love?

Kindness, on the other hand, is much more focused and practical.  A kind person is sensitive to the needs of others, and speaks or acts out of that sensitivity.  We all know this instinctively.  Think about someone you know who is kind.  No doubt he or she has a focus on others and selflessly responds to their needs in practical ways.  Nothing is ever too hard.  For a follower of Christ, I would argue, being kind to others in increasing measure is the truest sign of one’s faith.  Although one doesn’t have to be a Christian in order to be kind, one must be kind in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

Pat and I visited with Juanita a few weeks ago on a short visit to Maine.  She is now blind, her husband long deceased.  She still lives in the old farmhouse on the hill, although mostly alone during the day.  And yet, she has been a faithful witness through the power of kindness.  She is for me an embodiment of Jesus’ blessing on those living out an authentic faith in the kingdom of God. “You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”  (Matthew 5:14)

S

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1  A ruler’s heart is like a stream,
the Lord moves by His hand;
It pleases Him to channel it,
the way that He has planned.

2  A person thinks their way is right,
since that’s how they’re inclined;
But it’s the Lord who weighs the heart,
and what is in the mind.

3  To do what’s right and virtuous,
will certainly suffice;
For God they’re more acceptable,
than any sacrifice.

4  When arrogance and unchecked pride,
are all that grow within;
The harvest of such wickedness,
is unrepentant sin.

5  The plans devised with diligence,
will bring prosperity;
But those conceived too hastily,
will lead to poverty.

6  A fortune made by telling lies,
will vanish in the air;
Such wealth is like a wisp of smoke –
a death inviting snare.

7  The wicked will be swept away,
by violence they incite;
For they refuse to do the things,
considered just and right.

8  The guilty lead a way of life,
that’s crooked to the core;
But everyone who’s innocent,
is upright, just, and pure.

9  Much better with a rooftop nook,
and solitary life;
Than sharing an entire house,
in conflict with a wife.

10  The wicked crave for what is vile,
and do not empathize;
Their neighbors see no grace in them,
no mercy from their eyes.

11  To see a mocker disciplined,
is how the naive learn;
But through instruction is the way,
the wise come to discern.

12  The righteous God observes the house,
where wicked people dwell;
He brings them into ruin as,
He sounds their final knell.

13  Now those who do not hear the poor,
or listen when they cry;
Will one day cry out loud themselves,
but hear not a reply.

14  A gift conferred in secrecy,
will soothe a person’s rage;
A hidden bribe will calm one’s pique,
and strongest wrath assuage.

15  The righteous feel a surge of joy,
when justice is displayed;
But evildoers seeing it,
are terribly afraid.

16  Whoever wanders mindlessly,
from pathways that are wise;
Will surely come to rest with those,
who’ve passed to their demise.

17  Those living lives for pleasure’s sake,
will end in poverty;
Those loving wine and olive oil,
will riches never see.

18  The wicked are a ransom for,
the righteous and the fair;
The faithless and the traitor for,
the upright everywhere.

19  Much better in the wilderness,
and solitary life;
Than living with a quarrelsome,
and irritable wife.

20  Within the dwelling of the wise,
choice food and wealth abound;
But foolish people gobble up,
whatever is around.

21  Whenever someone acts for good,
and all that’s right and kind;
It’s certain that abundant life,
and honor they will find.

22  The one who’s wise can go against,
the mighty and their lair;
Demolishing their confidence,
in what they trust and care.

23  Whoever keeps their tongue in check,
by speaking with control;
Will surely keep calamities,
from troubling their soul.

24  The haughty and the arrogant,
have “Mocker” for their name;
They act with overbearing pride,
without a hint of shame.

25  The cravings of the indolent,
will bring them deadly harm;
Because they do not labor much,
or even raise their arm.

26  For all day long the indolent,
desire what they lack;
The righteous though will always give,
while holding nothing back.

27  The Lord detests the sacrifice,
of every wicked soul;
So how much more when offered up,
with evil as its goal.

28  The ones who falsely testify,
will perish by the score;
But those who listen carefully,
speak words that will endure.

29  The wicked put a bold face on,
to hide what isn’t pure;
The upright think about their ways,
to make their pathways sure.

30  There is no wisdom, hope, or plan,
no insight that is stored;
No word or thought that can prevail,
or stand against the Lord.

31  The horse is dressed to go to war,
to fight and never flee;
But always it’s the Lord alone,
who gives the victory.

Proverbs 20

“Unfair and unjust measurements, and variable weights; are both the same unto the Lord, as something that he hates.”  (Proverbs 20:10)

“The Lord detests the usage of unfair and shifting weights; Since every crooked measurement, and unjust scales he hates.”  (Proverbs 20:23)

This is the twentieth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 20, preceded by a brief reflection.

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Proverbs 20:10 & 23 speak to the harmful practice of using unfair weights and measures.  This brings to my mind’s eye an ancient marketplace where a merchant is selling produce from a crowded stall.  As a customer places her selections on one side of a balance scale, the merchant slowly pulls weights out of a bag setting them one by one on the other side until a balance is reached.  Sometime later, a peasant farmer arrives with a cart of vegetables.  The farmer lifts an armful onto the scale, and as before, the merchant pulls weights out of his bag to measure the purchase.  Although the weights look the same as before, they are heavier.  For this merchant is unscrupulous and has two sets of weights in his bag – a light one when selling and a heavy one when buying.  This is what it means to use variable or shifting weights.

We all know unfair weights are wrong and are an affront to God.  For example, the Lord, himself, spoke to Moses, “Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity.  Use honest scales and honest weights, …  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”  (Leviticus 19:35-36)   Moses repeated this in his final address to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land.  “Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light.  Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small.  You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  (Deuteronomy 25:13-15)  Solomon also wrote of this elsewhere in Proverbs – “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.”  (Proverbs 11:1)  “Honest scales and balances belong to the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of his making.” (Proverbs 16:11)

We might be excused if we pass quickly over these verses as having limited applicability to our lives today.  Balance scales with weights are from an earlier time.  And even if we had the opportunity to use one, I am pretty sure none of us would dream of cheating someone by using heavy weights.

But there is another type of weight that we sometimes lay on others, even those we are closest to.  These are emotional “weights” of criticism, judgment, and condemnation.  Jesus described a similar kind of weight when he denounced the Pharisees for laying heavy loads on people.  In his words, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”  (Matthew 23:4)  The Pharisees were in a unique position by virtue of their spiritual authority to control the lives of others.  And according to Jesus, that is precisely what they were doing by making demands and judging harshly those who came up short.  In brief, they were crushing the people, but extending no grace.

We are like the Pharisees when we apply pressure through criticism and unsolicited ‘advice.”  Jesus spoke about this at length in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:1-12.  His words are familiar – ‘Do not judge,’ ‘Get the log out of your own eye,’ and ‘Don’t throw your pearls to pigs.’  The words are strong, perhaps too strong, because we can imagine these sweeping moral judgments apply only to hypercritical individuals.  But in truth it doesn’t take much for us to tie loads of guilt and condemnation on others.

Some people, it seems, have a need to control their world and the world of those around them.  I have known individuals who were tyrants in their home, making unfair and unreasonable demands of their spouse and children.  It is easy to see how such individuals with their deeply entrenched pathologies crush those around them.  But the rest of us, for the most part, are not out to dominate others.  To the contrary, rather than a desire to bend someone to our will, it is often the case that the pressure we place on others is born out of a sincere desire to help the other person.  We may have knowledge or experience that can help the other person from hurting themselves.  But even if our motives are well intentioned, the result may be harmful.

Why does this happen?  The problem is that feelings of inadequacy and rejection are running just below the surface in many lives.  Such feelings can be disturbed by even the slightest provocation, making it impossible to predict how our words are going to be received.  Advice can be heard as criticism, criticism as judgment, and judgment as condemnation.  Words intended to help can be perceived by the recipient as, “Unless you do this or that, then you are unworthy.  Unless you measure up, then you are not loved.”  I find this in myself when my wife offers a suggestion and I become defensive.  Or when my parent points out where I have failed her, and I become angry and despondent.  I see this as well in others around me whose comments have estranged them from family and friends.

So, what are we to do when even our most sincere efforts to help others can be misinterpreted as manipulation or even condemnation?  Is inaction our only option?  Jesus described another way of interacting with others when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  (Matthew 7:7)  As Dallas Willard has pointed out, these words first apply to our approach to others and not prayer to God, although they include that as well.  Thus, the way to help others is by the simple request – ‘Can I help?’  Asking is the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in cooperation with God and in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual.”  (The Divine Conspiracy, 232)

And a moment’s reflection on this dynamic will tell us that is the way of the kingdom of God.  For isn’t this the way we want to be respected?  When we have a problem in our life or are doing something that is hurtful to others, aren’t we more receptive to someone asking if they can help rather than simply jumping in with advice?  And if we reject the offer, are we not grateful if the offeror backs off gracefully rather than continually pressing the point?  This, of course, is why Jesus’ summary vision for human interactions rings true, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)  It is called the Golden Rule not just as a concise statement of God’s law for kingdom life, but as the kind of rule by which we are to measure the lives of others – the measure that we desire others to use on us.

S

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Note – Photo of Neat Claw Lake and Grand Teton Mountain (8/6/21) – curtesy of Jim Hilt.

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1  Now wine can lead to mocking words,
and beer can cause a fray;
Whoever’s led astray by them,
lacks wisdom for their way.

2  The terror of a king is like,
a lion’s fearsome roar;
And those who anger him will find,
destruction is in store.

3  It’s to one’s honor to avoid,
an argument and fight;
But fools are always quarrelsome,
and meddle out of spite.

4  A lazy person doesn’t plow,
when planting time comes round;
And so will beg when harvest comes,
and nothing’s to be found.

5  The motives of a person’s heart,
are deeper than a well;
But one with insight draws them out –
the things that therein dwell.

6  While many may proclaim their love,
and steadfast constancy –
Yet who can find such faithfulness,
and faultless loyalty?

7  The righteous lead a blameless life,
by doing what is right;
Their children coming after them,
know blessings and delight.

8  A king who sits upon his throne,
makes judgments that are wise;
He winnows evil from his realm,
by watching with his eyes.

9  Is there a person who can say,
“My heart is pure within;
That I am clean from every wrong,
   and washed from every sin?”

10  Unfair and unjust measurements,
and variable weights;
Are both the same unto the Lord,
as something that he hates.

11  Even children who are small,
are known by what they do –
If they are innocent and pure,
uprighteous, good and true.

12  The ears by which a person hears,
and eyes by which one sees;
The Lord our God has made them all,
His hand has fashioned these.

13  Don’t let yourself love sleep too much,
or poverty you’ll bear;
But stay awake and you will have,
abundant food to spare.

14  Some buyers gripe that, “It’s no good,”
   “No, it’s no good this lot;”
But then they boast to everyone,
about the deal they got.

15  While there may be a raft of gems,
and piles of purest gold;
Yet lips that speak with knowledge are,
a treasure to behold.

16  Demand the coat of one who swears,
to pay a stranger’s debt;
And do not give it back again,
until the payment’s met.

17  The food that’s gained by fraudulence,
initially tastes sweet;
But afterward it clogs the mouth,
like gravel from a street.

18  When making plans first get some help,
and counsel that is wise;
Before you ever wage a war,
seek those who can advise.

19  A gossip and an slanderer,
betrays what they’ve been told;
So don’t be close with those whose tongues,
will never be controlled.

20  All those who curse a parent’s life,
are sure to meet their doom –
By ending like a lamp that’s snuffed,
and left in darkest gloom.

21  Inheritance that’s claimed too soon,
is certain to portend;
That it will not be blessed at all,
or favored in the end.

22  Oh do not say, “I’ll pay you back,
   for evilness and spite;”
But trust the Lord to rescue you,
and He will make things right.

23  The Lord detests the usage of,
unfair and shifting weights;
Since every crooked measurement,
and unjust scales he hates.

24  The Lord alone directs our steps,
and how we go each day –
How then can any person know,
and fathom their own way?

25  It’s rash to make a sacred oath –
a promise to be paid;
And only later to reflect,
on why such vow was made.

26  A king who’s wise will winnow out,
the wicked and the vile;
He drives the threshing wheel through them,
and leaves them in a pile.

27  The spirit of a person is,
the candle of the Lord;
It searches all the inner parts,
and shines on what is stored.

28  It’s steadfast love and faithfulness,
that helps a king endure;
For by this love his throne is kept,
protected and secure.

29  The glory of the young and spry,
is strength that they display;
The splendor of our elders is,
a head of hair that’s gray.

30  Harsh blows can be a cleansing scrub,
so evil can’t abide;
For beatings clean the inner parts,
by purging what’s inside.

Proverbs 19

“It’s wisdom in a person’s life that keeps their patience strong; for it will make one’s glory shine to overlook a wrong.”  (Proverbs 19:11)

This is the nineteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 19, preceded by a brief reflection.

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A few months into the Covid lockdown in 2020, my son John and I were talking over the phone.  He asked how I was spending my time, to which I replied, “reading, studying, and writing.”  His quick response, “Well Dad, it seems like you have been training for quarantine your entire life.”  He was pretty close to the mark because, as an introvert, I prefer quiet, reflective living.  So when the pandemic struck, I easily embraced the endless months of involuntary semi-solitude.  In this, I was most fortunate because for many it was a time of emotional and financial hardships.  But whether the experience was easy or difficult, we all were all impacted in some way by the disruption of our relationships.  Perhaps it was family members we could not visit, or friends we could not have coffee with, or groups that stopped meeting.  Isolation affected all of us in our interactions with others.

Things are now starting to open up, and relationships that have been on hold for the past year are gradually being renewed.  What will these look like?  Will we just sort of pick up where we left off, or will something be different?  I heard an interview with Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist, who was imprisoned in Iran for 18 months in solitary confinement prior to his release in 2016.  Based on his experience of reentering society after a prolonged absence, he offered the following advice, “Be aware that we’ve all changed, whether consciously or not.  Not everything will return to the way it was before, so have patience with yourself and others.  For all we know, some of these changes may actually be improvements.”

Jason’s comment to have patience with others resonates with me, but not perhaps in the way he intended it.  His point is that it will take time to reestablish relationships both in terms of the timing and content.  Things will be different because the passage of time has changed us, and we should be patient to allow ourselves and others time to adjust to a new normal.

However, the kind of patience that comes to my mind involves self-control that can overlook a wrong.  This has been a struggle for me because I can be upset by even the most trivial of perceived offenses.  For example, someone breaks a promise, or doesn’t acknowledge something I have done, or makes a critical remark, or doesn’t smile when I walk by.  With any of these, feelings of disappointment, bitterness, and anger can appear and even thoughts of revenge begin to form.  This kind of impatience can metastasize into habits that are not easy to break.

All of this of course is contrary to the wisdom of Solomon who wrote, “It’s wisdom in a person’s life that keeps their patience strong; for it will make one’s glory shine to overlook a wrong.”  (Proverbs 19:11)  The NIV translation is “A person’s wisdom yields patience, it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”  Other versions say that “A person’s wisdom makes them slow to anger …”  The concept is clear – wisdom’s way is that when we feel offended, we should show patience by overlooking the matter.  Jesus says pretty much the same thing when Peter asks how many times he must forgive, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  (Matthew 18:22)

As our social interactions pick up, we have an opportunity to rethink and reform the old patterns of behavior.  To be less sensitive and defensive.  To be less petty and pouty.  In short, to be more understanding and forgiving.  According to Solomon, it is wisdom that makes this possible.  So how do we gain this wisdom?  The answer, I believe, is revealed in our deepest held beliefs.  It’s not that we don’t believe in overlooking offenses, but that we hold diametrically opposed beliefs that are stronger.  Let me explain.

In many matters we have conflicting beliefs.  These are not always apparent because what we articulate as our belief is not necessarily the deeper belief that controls our actions.  For example, there are some people who refuse to get vaccinated for the Covid virus based on their belief that medical science is not to be trusted.  However, these same people will seek the best medical care if they become sick.  Two diametrically opposed beliefs about medical science, where the dominant one is revealed when it matters most.

Now when it comes to overlooking an offense, I am like many Christians in believing that this is God’s will.  And yet, when offended, I inevitably react with impatience, defensiveness, and anger.  The reason is that I hold a contrary belief in a form of “justice” that responds to every wrong.  When things are going well, I am loath to admit that I believe in retaliation.  And yet that is precisely what is revealed when I feel offended.  I think, “what he said wasn’t right,” or “what she did wasn’t fair.”  And so I set out to defend myself.

Biblical wisdom is an unwavering commitment to the will of God.  This means that despite conflicting beliefs, if we desire the wisdom that results in spiritual growth, we must strive to make God’s way our dominate belief.  This is not easy because following God’s will does not come naturally to us.  What comes naturally is self-centeredness and self-protection.

So how does a Christian grow beyond impatience and anger?  This is classically the purpose of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, guidance and community.  No doubt these are essential, but equally foundational is coming to the knowledge that our lives are measurably better when we overlook offenses.  I know what it is like to stew over some offense for days, plan retaliation for an injury received, and wallow in self-pity over some injustice.  And I don’t think I ever feel better afterward.  But I have also tasted the freedom that comes with overlooking slights and offenses caused by others.  Solomon expresses this freedom in terms of having life, “Those keeping fast the Lord’s commands, will live since they obey; but all will die who only keep, and follow their own way.”  (Proverbs 19:16)  There is freedom that comes from a forgiving heart, and if we truly love our life, we want to grow in wisdom.  Again, the words of Solomon, “To grow in wisdom is to love the life within one’s soul; to cherish understanding is to prosper in one’s goal.” (Proverbs 19:8)

We don’t overlook an offense because it is easy or feels good on the front end.  We do so because it is how we find freedom.  Every time I overlook an injustice done to me, I am free to love others as God loves me.  With anger just the opposite – walls rise up as my soul shrivels.

We come out of Covid with the possibility of a reset in our interactions with others.  Even in the best of relationships it is inevitable that there will come a time when something will be said or done that is hurtful.  But with a commitment to overlook offenses, true inner freedom is within our reach.

S

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1  Much better being one who’s poor,
and have integrity;
Than being rich with foolish lips,
that spew perversity.

2  To rashly act when knowledge lacks,
is certainly not good;
So anyone who acts in haste,
won’t go the way they should.

3  Through people’s own stupidity,
comes ruin for their way;
Yet in their hearts they blame the Lord,
for how they’ve gone astray.

4  While wealth and riches draw a crowd,
attracting many friends;
With poverty it’s opposite –
desertion’s how it ends.

5  A witness who won’t tell the truth,
is punished for their plea;
And one who falsely testifies,
will never be set free.

6  A number curry favor with,
a prince who’s generous;
And everyone would be a friend,
to a philanthropist.

7  The poor are shunned by relatives,
and spurned by every friend;
And though pursued and begged for help,
they’re missing in the end.

8  To grow in wisdom is to love,
the life within one’s soul;
To cherish understanding is,
to prosper in one’s goal.

9  A witness who won’t tell the truth,
will suffer discipline;
And one who falsely testifies,
will perish for their sin.

10  While luxury is out of place,
for one who is a fool;
Much worse when servants take command,
and over princes rule.

11  It’s wisdom in a person’s life,
that keeps their patience strong;
For it will make one’s glory shine,
to overlook a wrong.

12  The anger of a king is like,
a lion when it roars;
His favor though is like the dew,
that freshens and restores.

13  A foolish child brings suffering,
that is a father’s bane;
A nagging wife is like a roof,
that’s dripping from the rain.

14  A parent leaves a house and wealth,
when passing from this life;
But it’s the Lord whose hand provides,
a wise and prudent wife.

15  One’s unimpeded laziness,
brings on a heavy sleep;
While idleness breeds famishment,
with nothing for one’s keep.

16  Those keeping fast the Lord’s commands,
will live since they obey;
But all will die who only keep,
and follow their own way.

17  Those showing kindness to the poor,
are lending to the Lord;
And for the things that they have done,
He’ll give them a reward.

18  Now discipline your children while,
there’s hope that they can learn;
Or else you’re helping put them on,
a path of no return.

19  A wrathful man must pay the price,
for evening a score;
But rescue him and you will have,
to do it more and more.

20  Accept advice and discipline,
and counsel for your ways;
And you’ll acquire wisdom for,
the balance of your days.

21  A person’s heart has many plans,
that seem like they can’t fail;
But it’s the purpose of the Lord,
that always will prevail.

22  What people want the very most,
is love and loyalty;
It’s better to have nothing than,
to speak dishonestly.

23  To reverence and fear the Lord,
will yield a life that’s blessed;
Untouched by any suffering,
contented and at rest.

24  The lazy put their hand in food,
intending there to sup;
But will not bring it to their mouth,
or even lift it up.

25  When seeing mockers disciplined,
the foolish understand;
But those with wisdom learn when they,
receive a reprimand.

26  Whoever robs their family,
and drives their parents out;
Is surely a disgraceful son,
a prodigal and lout.

27  My child, if you stop listening,
to words you need to hear;
Then you will surely drift away,
from knowledge that is clear.

28  A witness who’s unprincipled,
makes fun of what is fair;
For one who’s set on wickedness,
spreads evil without care.

29  There’s condemnation preordained,
for those who mock and scorn;
And beatings destined for the back,
of every fool who’s born.

 

Proverbs 18

“The fruitful words that people speak, will nourish and provide; for with the harvest of their lips, their hearts are satisfied.”  (Proverbs 18:20)

“The tongue speaks words of life and death, that hearten or accuse; and those who love it eat its fruit – whichever one they choose.”  (Proverbs 18:21)

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 18, preceded by a brief reflection.

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I wrote last time about the struggle many of us have with a critical spirit and its consequences for the words we speak.  In our clearer moments, we lament having a critical spirit and desire to change, but we find our ingrained habits hard to break.  This struggle is summed up by the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.”  (Romans 7:18-19)  Still, Paul would not have us lose hope.  For he also wrote, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.  And the God of peace will be with you.”  (Philippians 4:9)  Progress is possible.  If we are persistent and patient, with the help of God, the smoldering embers of anger in our souls are gradually cooled and our words become less harsh, less judgmental, and less self-righteous.

But even as our critical spirit begins to heal, we can sense the Lord calling us to a deeper place.  A place not only devoid of criticism, cynicism and negativity, but abundant in encouragement, hope and joy.  Solomon tells us that our words carry with them the potential of both death and life.  “The tongue speaks words of life and death, that hearten or accuse; and those who love it eat its fruit – whichever one they choose.”  (Proverbs 18:21)  Simply withholding words of death that criticize is not enough, we will only be satisfied when we speak words of life that bring hope and encouragement.  This is a theme throughout Proverbs, where we read of the life-giving joy that encouraging words bring.  “An anxious heart weighs a person down, but a kind word cheers him up.”  (Proverbs 12:25)  “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.”  (Proverbs 15:4a)  “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”  (Proverbs 16:24)  “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”  (Proverbs 25:11)

The great spiritual transformation of the heart is to judge and speak to others the way we would have others judge and speak to us.  Who among us doesn’t want to be an encourager?  To speak with kindness, compassion, and sensitivity?  To bless rather than curse?  But how is this to be accomplished?  How indeed?

In Proverbs 18, Solomon gives us a handle on this, “The fruitful words that people speak, will nourish and provide; for with the harvest of their lips, their hearts are satisfied.”  (Proverbs 18:20)  Solomon’s insight is that the words we speak are what nourish and provide for us.  It is not simply that our words can give life to others, but that they also feed and bring life to our own souls.  The focus in this verse is not on the effect of our words on others, but rather on ourselves.  We are all familiar with the adage “you are what you eat.”  Well, Solomon tells us that our words are the spiritual equivalent – our hearts are fed by the positive, affirming words we speak.  And the result is a contented heart.  Anyone who habitually encourages others can validate what Solomon is saying.

We find therefore that speaking words of encouragement creates a positive feedback loop.  The more we encourage, the better we feel about ourselves, which enables us to encourage more.  Given this, many of us still struggle to encourage others.  Why?  I would mention two reasons.

The first involves various pathologies such as selfishness, a need to be in control, unforgiveness, anger, and the like.  Anyone suffering under these clouds cannot encourage others until they are first healed by the Lord.  Scripture reminds us, “a salt spring cannot produce fresh water.”  (James 3:12)  Neither can a heart in chains set others free.

The second involves good intentions that miss their mark.  These are not born out of anger, fear, or jealousy, but out of good motives that are simply ineffective.  For example, suppose we love someone who is struggling but has not asked for our help.  When we try to share relevant and potentially helpful advice, it is spurned and scorned.  Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.  If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”  (Matthew 7:6)  In The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard points out that this verse is often misunderstood to mean that we may have certain wonderful treasures but there are some people who are not worthy of those treasures.  This is directly opposed to the spirit of what Jesus is teaching.  The point is not that the pearl is wasted, but that the person is not helped.  Words spoken out of good intentions but without discernment are not life-giving.  Encouragement requires both a heart that cares and a mind that’s wise.

People are hurting, we are hurting.  Insecurities and fears run deep.  And there seems to be no shortage of people who would criticize, judge, and condemn others.  At times, it can feel as if the entire culture is tilting this way.  The world desperately needs to hear words of encouragement – words springing from a heart of, “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  (Colossians 3:12)  As followers of Christ, we fight against the powers of darkness every time we encourage and build up another.  Encouragement is truly a way that we can let our light shine before others.  When we do this, we find that we too are encouraged.  And in the words of St. Francis we discover that, “It is in giving that we receive.” (Peace Prayer)

There is much riding on our words – the spiritual life of others and ourselves.  In Sacred Fire, Ronald Rolheiser writes, “We are mature when we define ourselves by what we are for rather than by what we are against.  The capacity to praise more than to criticize defines maturity.  The crowning glory of maturity and discipleship is the capacity and willingness to bless others, particularly the young. … Nothing so much depresses us as cursing others, just as nothing brings as much joy into our lives as blessing others.”  (260)

May you be a blessing and encouragement to others today.

S

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1  Whoever isolates himself,
pursues a selfish end;
Rejecting judgments that are sound,
and what they recommend.

2  The foolish find no happiness,
in learning what is right;
Instead, by airing their ideas,
is how they take delight.

3  Wherever there is wickedness,
contempt is close behind;
And with embarrassment and shame,
disgrace is intertwined.

4  The words that certain people speak,
have wisdom all should know;
Like waters gushing from the deep,
that fill up streams that flow.

5  It’s wrong to favor those who act,
in vile and wicked ways;
Or to deprive the innocent,
of justice for their days.

6  The lips of foolish people bring,
them constant quarreling;
Their mouths invite a battering,
from all those listening.

7  The mouths of fools will ruin them,
and lay their spirits bare;
Their lips are for their lives a trap,
and for their soul a snare.

8  A gossip’s words are like a snack,
that makes one satisfied;
They slide on in with greatest ease,
and settle deep inside.

9  There’s one whose way is laziness,
with slacker as a name;
And one destroying everything –
the two are much the same.

10  The name of Him who is the Lord,
is like a tower strong;
The righteous swiftly run to it,
and safely there belong.

11  The wealth amassed by those of means,
is like a town that’s sealed;
They proudly think it can’t be breached –
a lofty wall and shield.

12  It’s pride that surely comes before,
embarrassment and shame;
But when humility is first,
there’s honor and acclaim.

13  To answer without listening,
to what is being asked;
Reveals a foolishness that’s deep,
and shamefulness that’s vast.

14  A person’s spirit can survive,
when sickness has no cure;
But if that spirit’s hope is crushed,
it cannot long endure.

15  The heart that is intelligent,
finds knowledge where it can;
The ear that follows wisdom’s way,
makes seeking it its plan.

16  A gift will open up the way,
forestalling any wait;
It gives the giver access to,
the mighty and the great.

17  The first to speak and state his case,
seems sensible and right;
But after cross-examining,
it’s not so black and white.

18  To flip a coin can end a fight,
and make contention cease;
It separates opposing sides,
ensuring there is peace.

19  A brother wronged is hard to win –
a city that won’t yield; ,
Disputes keep people far apart, ,
like gates forever sealed.

20  The fruitful words that people speak,
will nourish and provide;
For with the harvest of their lips,
their hearts are satisfied.

21  The tongue speaks words of life and death,
that hearten or accuse;
And those who love it eat its fruit –
whichever one they choose.

22  The one who finds a wife who’s good,
finds one to be adored;
And he’ll receive the blessing and,
the favor of the Lord.

23  The poor will beg for some relief –
for mercy they will plead;
The rich will answer heartlessly,
and not a thing concede.

24  Some friends are unreliable,
and ruin you for good;
But one sticks closer to you than,
a brother ever would.

Proverbs 17

The one with knowledge shows restraint by speaking with control; and one with understanding is an even-tempered soul.”  (Proverbs 17:27)

This is the seventeenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 17, preceded by a brief reflection.

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The Bible attaches great importance to the words we speak.  Proverbs 17 is no exception with at least ten verses on the matter.  A common theme is, The one with knowledge shows restraint by speaking with control.”  (Proverbs 17:27a)  “Speaking with control,” or  more colloquially “controlling our tongue,” is simple to understand, but hard to accomplish. For as the apostle James tells us, “No one can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)  And yet, controlling our words is precisely what we are told to do over and over again in Proverbs and throughout Scripture.

We all instinctively know that controlling our tongue is important.  Who among us has not at times said something that he or she later regretted?  Perhaps it was a word spoken when we were angry, or tired, or simply not thinking.  It is a tall order indeed to control our tongue, but it is not impossible.  James doesn’t tell us to throw up our hands because the tongue can’t be tamed.  Rather, he is using hyperbole to emphasize the enormity of the challenge.  This is clear because he goes on to tell us not to curse; not to boast; and not to slander – all commands to control our words.  Furthermore we know, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”  (Luke 18:27)

The principal challenge for controlling our words is that the root lies not in our mouth, but in our heart.  For as Jesus reminds us, “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”  (Matthew 12:34)  This means that unless we take a deeper journey into what is behind our words, real spiritual growth will be illusive.  But what does that deeper journey look like in practical terms?  How do we gain some level of control over our words?  To a large extent we are left on our own thoughts and the guidance of others to accomplish this.

I tried an experiment twenty years ago that has had a significant impact on my spiritual journey.  The idea came from Catherine Marshall, who described her experience of fasting from criticism.  It was a straightforward idea – to abstain from criticism for one day.  I have written previously of how I tried to follow her example by avoiding critical thoughts and words for a day.  (https://pursuitofvirtue.org/category/guard-your-heart/)  In brief, I failed miserably – having multiple negative thoughts within minutes of waking.  But God plays the long game, and even as he revealed to me the extent of my critical spirit, he has continued to work on this area of my life.

According to Solomon, controlling our words comes from “knowledge.”  The one with knowledge shows restraint by speaking with control.”  (Proverbs 17:27a)  But this cannot be simply academic knowledge that merely informs because we Christians have “knowledge” of an untold number of commands about controlling our thoughts and words, but we still struggle to do so.  Rather, this is empirical knowledge that enlightens, motivates, and enables.

1)  Knowledge that enlightens.  This is the kind of knowledge that opens our eyes by making us aware of our actions.  The first time I tried fasting from criticism I was surprised at how critical I was.  Spiritual blindness to our thoughts and words is a real problem because we live in a culture where complaining and criticism is seen by many as an inalienable right.  It is all around us – in the media, in politics, and even the church.  Constantly inhaling the air of negativity makes it hard not to exhale the same.  Furthermore, there is a desensitization that occurs when critical thoughts and words are normalized, which can mask them in ourselves.  But whatever the cause, recognizing the extent of our negativity necessarily precedes growth.

2)  Knowledge that motivates.  This is the kind of knowledge that shakes us out of our lethargy and leads us to resolve to change.  In other words, a knowledge that ignites our will.  There is much mystery in what motivates the heart, so we proceed with caution because the knowledge that moves one person to change may be a matter of indifference to another.  For one person it may be the discovery of the damage chronic complaining and criticism has on those they love.  For another person, it may be the revulsion felt at living apart from the kingdom of God.  For another, it may be the result of a deeper revelation.  For example, part of my negativity was a defense mechanism against feeling rejected – when a person didn’t meet my expectations, I responded with criticism.  Wounds suffered early in life such as rejection, fear, and guilt, if exposed and healed by God, can motivate one to change.

3)  Knowledge that enables.  This is the knowledge that emerges from failure and makes us rely on the power of God to help us change.  Because slipping is inevitable there is a temptation to despair.  But when we call on the Lord through prayer, we discover he is the only one who can change us.  When I catch myself with critical thoughts I have learned to pray the Jesus prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  Taken in part from the words of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, and widely used in the Orthodox church, I have found it to be a powerful prayer to reorient my heart and mind to things above.

Throughout Scripture we hear the clarion call to control our thoughts and words.  From Solomon exhorting the wise to “speak with control” (Proverbs 17:27), to Isaiah calling the people of God to “do away with … the pointing finger and malicious talk” (Isaiah 58:9), to Jesus commanding his followers to “judge not” (Matthew 7:1).  But commands in and of themselves do not bring about change.  We need to move beyond the academic knowledge from merely listening to the word to the experiential knowledge gained by doing what it says.  (James 1:22).

One final note.  Although overcoming a critical spirit is a great step forward, it is only a first step.  The true goal for a Christian is a heart of positive, affirming, and encouraging thoughts and a tongue for speaking the same.  More on this in the next post.

S

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1  Far better eating dried out bread,
in quietude and peace;
Than feasting well within a house,
with strife that doesn’t cease.

2  A prudent servant rules above,
a son who causes shame;
Receiving an inheritance,
like those who share his name.

3  The crucible for silver ore,
the furnace flames for gold;
The Lord for purifying hearts,
of all the things they hold.

4  The wicked pay attention to,
whatever false lips say;
A liar to destructive tongues,
and what their words convey.

5  Whoever mocks the destitute,
insults their Maker God;
Whoever gloats at tragedies,
will not escape the rod.

6  Grandchildren are a crown for those,
whose heads are getting old;
And parents are a wondrous pride,
for children to behold.

7  Fine speech is not expected from,
the mouths of godless fools;
Much less are false deceptive words,
from anyone who rules.

8  A bribe is like a magic charm,
for those who give it out;
They see success at every turn,
and prosper from its clout.

9  Whoever overlooks a wrong,
wants love to fill their heart;
But speaking of the incident,
will tear two friends apart.

10  A sharp rebuke hits very deep,
on one with common sense;
More than a hundred lashes on,
the back of one who’s dense.

11  The wicked disobeying God,
seek only to rebel;
For them the messenger of death,
will sound their final knell.

12  Far better to approach a bear,
who’s cubs have disappeared;
Than meeting with a foolish dolt,
who’s bent on acting weird.

13  If evil is repaid by those,
for good that they receive;
Then evil will invade their house,
where it will never leave.

14  To start an argument is like,
a dam that springs a leak;
So drop the matter prior to,
a sudden burst of pique.

15  To punish those whose acts are good,
and pardon those with blame;
Are verdicts hated by the Lord –
to him they’re both the same.

16  Some fools think wisdom can be bought,
with money in their hand;
But wisdom’s something they can’t grasp,
or hope to understand.

17  A friend will love you all the time,
and always see you through;
A brother’s born for troubled times,
forever tried and true;

18  Those lacking commonsense shake hands,
by pledging their assets;
They guarantee to cover all,
a neighbor’s unpaid debts.

19  A person who is quarrelsome,
loves wickedness and sin;
And one who boasts their gate is high,
invites destruction in.

20  A person with a crooked heart,
will surely not succeed;
And one who has a perverse tongue,
will have distress indeed.

21  A parent always grieves to have,
a foolish girl or boy;
And those who have a godless child,
will surely have no joy.

22  A cheerful heart is medicine,
that eases pain and stress;
A trampled spirit dries the bones,
and causes weariness.

23  The wicked take a secret bribe
that’s slipped into their hands;
And so pervert what justice needs,
and equity demands.

24  Those understanding what is right,
keep wisdom in their view;
But eyes of fools look far away,
while wandering askew.

25  A foolish child brings misery,
that makes a father sad;
And fills a mother’s heart with grief,
and feelings that are bad.

26  If fining one who’s innocent,
is never good to do;
Then how much worse to strike a judge,
who’s ethical and true.

27  The one with knowledge shows restraint,
by speaking with control;
And one with understanding is,
an even-tempered soul.

28  Even fools are thought as wise,
so long as they’re not heard;
Yes, they’re perceived intelligent,
if speaking not a word.