Proverbs 5

“May you rejoice and love the one you married long ago.”  (Proverbs 5:18)

This is the fifth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  Today’s blog contains my rendering of Proverbs 5, preceded by a brief reflection.

**********

It was love at first sight when I stepped onto fifty acres of abandoned farmland in Palmyra, Maine, in June of 1973.  My search for rural property was over.  Situated at the end of an old town road, it opened up into roughly 15 acres of once cultivated fields surrounded by an encroaching forest.  There was no potable water, and the nearest power was about a half mile away.  But these seemed trivial matters compared to the promise of a bucolic life in such remote and beautiful country.  Love, it seems, sometimes blinds the eyes to reality.

And so, the purchase was made, and a year later in May of 1974, I moved to the property with plans to build a stone house and grow my own food.  I had more energy than time, more enthusiasm than plans, and more dreams than money.  Conditions were primitive – sleeping in a tent, hauling in water, and working with hand tools.  None of this deterred me and I pushed ahead – clearing brush and trees, putting in a garden, and hand digging a foundation.   I was encouraged to have a friend living on an adjoining property.  Still, as the weeks wore on, I felt increasingly lonely and unsure whether I could sustain this life on my own.  At the time, Pat, whom I had been dating for four years, was working at a summer camp in southern Maine.  One day in mid-July, we took a break from work and drove to the coast.  Sitting above the rocky shore with waves of the Atlantic crashing below, I marshalled all my courage and asked her to marry me.  For a moment, future lives held their breath as even the angels waited to hear her answer.  But, oh the joy when she said yes.  Little did either of us know the amazing adventure that lay ahead.

The first reality to hit me was that we would need more than a tent to live in.  My priorities quickly shifted, and I decided to build a simple one-room 16×20 foot cabin.  Making all haste, the structure was framed and closed in before autumn winds began to blow.  In the meantime, Pat and I started corresponding about plans for a wedding the following July.

I don’t remember exactly when Pat mentioned it, but at some point she made it very clear that power and running water were prerequisites to her living in the cabin – non-negotiables as it were.  The only problem was that I had no money for such “extras.”  Fortunately, power turned out to be fairly easy because the utility company did not charge to install poles and run an electric line.  Water was more challenging because drilling a well was the only real option, and that wasn’t cheap.  But once again fortune seemed to smile as my parents stepped in and gave us $1000 as a wedding gift for a well (a biblicalesque gesture to be sure).  At a cost of $10 per foot to drill, it seemed like we were home free.  However, all of this changed when the driller hit the hundred-foot mark and there was no water.  I was crushed, and for a couple of days I felt as if my entire future lay in the balance.  But then, in an act of grace, the driller continued on his own initiative (either because of pride in his work, or pity on an impecunious young man), and after another 40 feet on his own nickel, hit water at 140 feet.  Joy does not describe what I felt when the first rush of water exploded from the ground.  Water is life.  And for me, water also meant a married life together on the land.

Unless you have ever had to find your own water supply (or lived in an arid climate), you may not understand the religious fervor surrounding water.  They certainly know of this in the middle east, where water has shaped the culture for millennia.  It has always been the most precious of commodities.  The simple principle is “no water, no life.”  From the earliest days, the Israelites have been masters of water supplies:  digging wells, developing springs, building cisterns, and even knowing the value of dew.  And so, it should be no surprise that water is a powerful metaphor in Scripture, which Solomon uses to great effect in Proverbs 5.

On quick reading, Proverbs 5 seems all about avoiding adultery, which it is.  But almost hidden in the middle of the chapter are verses 15-18 in which we find water as a metaphor for the marriage union.

Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well.
Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares?
Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers.
May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth
.

These metaphors lose some of their punch for those who have not had to drill for their own water or live with the knowledge of how precious and essential it is for life.  But for those who have, the verses speak volumes.  I believe the water metaphor represents the sexual union between a man and woman.  Verse 15 is clear enough – “your own cistern and well” is husband and wife.  Verse 16 – “overflow into the public squares” is any tryst outside of marriage.  Verse 17 – “yours alone” is husband and wife.  Verse 18 – “fountain” is husband and wife.

The poetry of these metaphors is inspirational, but there is more.  At the conclusion of verse 18, Solomon tells us to “rejoice in the wife of your youth.”  Although written to his son, it is fairly applied to a daughter – “rejoice in the husband of your youth.”  What Solomon is saying here and in verse 19 (“may you ever be intoxicated by her love”) is to be grateful for your spouse.  Remember the way you have been served and loved, the kindnesses small and large, the sacrifices, all that you have received and be grateful.   Ronald Rolheiser writes, “Gratitude is the true reason for love, and when we try to root our love in anything else … it will invariably be more self-serving than life giving.”  (Sacred Fire, 248).  The opposite of gratitude is taking something for granted.  Whether it is water or a spouse, true love is grounded in gratitude.

The winter of 1974/75 was very hard.  Water and electricity were still months away, and a wood stove was my only source of heat.  A transformative moment occurred one bright and bitterly cold Saturday morning when I was washing dishes with water I had hauled in from a neighbor’s house and then heated on a camp stove.  Something in my mind snapped and I thought, “If I ever have hot running water again, I will never mind washing dishes.”  This has stayed with me to this day.  Not only am I the chief dishwasher in the family, but I still remember what it was like to be without hot running water.  My actions are indeed grounded in gratitude.

Increasingly, I try to do the same thing in my marriage with Pat.  I take the advice of Solomon and remember her as the “wife of my youth.”  I also remember her for all the in-between years – for her love of our children and extended family.  But mostly I remember her for her love and concern for me.  Even when we have a tiff, I try to remember and be grateful.  This is where my love takes root.

S

**********

1  My child, attend to every word
of wisdom I convey;
Incline your ear to understand
my insight for your way.

2  By this, discernment you’ll preserve,
discretion you’ll maintain;
Your lips will only speak the truth
of knowledge that you gain.

3  But lips of all adulterers,
drip honey oh so sweet;
Their words like olive oil flow
as smooth as they are fleet.

4  But underneath and in the end,
there’s bitterness untoward;
And danger that is far more sharp
than any two-edged sword.

5  Their feet pursue a deadly path
that go the way of death;
Their steps lead straight unto the grave,
where there is no more breath

6  Adulterers don’t ponder life,
or where their path may go;
Their ways are ever wandering,
but they don’t seem to know.

***

7  So now, my children, hear me well,
pay heed to what I stress;
Don’t turn aside from what I say,
or from my way digress.

8  Keep far away from those who tempt,
and from this path don’t veer;
Do not approach their dwelling place,
or ever venture near.

9  Beware, or your integrity
will surely slip away;
Your years will go to one who’s cruel,
and hates you more each day.

10  Mere strangers will consume the wealth
that once was held by you;
And all the labors of your hands
will go to someone new.

11  And when your life has reached the end,
what’s left of you will groan;
Your flesh and body fully spent –
consumed unto the bone.

12  Remorsefully, you’ll say these words –
   “I hated discipline;
O how my heart despised reproof
   at my recurring sin.”

13  “I would not listen to the voice
   of those instructing me;
Nor try obeying what they said,
   or heeding their decree.”

14  “And now I teeter on the brink
   from troubles that I face;
Within the congregation hall,
   there’s ruin and disgrace.”

***

15   Drink water from your private store,
the cistern that’s your own –
A flow of water from your well,
that no one else has known

16  Why should your springs be scattered wide,
without a thought or care;
Your streams of water left to flow
within the public square?

17  But let them be for just yourself,
retain them close to you;
Don’t give to strangers even once –
make sharing them taboo.

18  May blessings from your fountain spring,
and goodness from it flow;
May you rejoice and love the one
you married long ago.

19  My son, your wife’s a graceful doe
with breasts that satisfy;
May you be raptured by her charms,
and love her till you die.

20  Why find elation and delight
with one who’s not your own?
Why fall into a wayward tryst
with one you’ve scarcely known?

***

21  The Lord sees everything you do,
His eyes are on your ways;
He watches all the paths you take,
they’re all within his gaze.

22  For evil deeds of wicked souls
will catch them like a snare;
The cords of their iniquities
will tightly hold them there.

23  Because they have no discipline,
the wicked die away;
Because of their own foolishness,
their lives are led astray.

Proverbs 4

“I teach you wisdom and her ways in all that I profess; instructing as I’m leading you in paths of righteousness.”  (Proverbs 4:11)

This is the fourth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  Today’s blog contains my rendering of Proverbs 4, preceded by a brief reflection.

**********

Steve Jobs was one of the great entrepreneurs of our time.  From humble roots and a love of tinkering, he co-founded Apple Computer.  Combining a practical knowledge of electronics with marketing and design and later leadership and finance, he gave the world iMacs, iPhones, iPads, and iTunes.  He had the ability to call on knowledge from disparate fields and apply it in new and innovative ways.  Incidentally, he was worth over $10B when he died in 2011.  By almost any measure, Steve Jobs had wisdom.

Wisdom is highly esteemed in the Bible.  And Proverbs, of course, is the quintessential Biblical book about wisdom.  But is the wisdom that Solomon writes about in Proverbs of the same kind that was exemplified by Steve Jobs in his professional life?  Or for that matter, when any of us shows good judgment in the give and take of daily life, is this Biblical wisdom?  Or is the wisdom written about in Proverbs and elsewhere in the Bible something different?

We all desire wisdom – particularly when the alternative is foolishness.  We all want to be known as wise; no one wants to be seen a fool.  I remember the winter of 1977/78 when Pat and I were living in a tiny cabin in rural Maine while building a larger house on the property.  One day as I was in the cabin making window frames for the house, I decided to use the kitchen table to support strips of wood as I cut them with my power circular saw.  Predictably, I went too deep on one piece and cut a deep slash in our table.  This was not wise, nay, it was pure and simply dumb.  Pat was too kind to call me a fool, but that’s what I was.  Still, did this make me a Biblical fool?  Did my action reflect a lack of Biblical wisdom?

Proverbs doesn’t provide a definition of “Biblical wisdom,” per se, so we are left to figure it out more or less on our own.  A good starting place comes from Charles Spurgeon, the so-named “Prince of Preachers,” who almost 150 years ago wrote, “Wisdom is the right use of knowledge.  To know is not to be wise.  Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it.  There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool.  But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.”  As a general definition of wisdom, this is pretty good.  Still, the question remains as to whether this captures the meaning of wisdom as used in Scripture and specifically Proverbs.  And frankly, I’m not sure it does.

John Piper formulates a definition of Biblical or Godly Wisdom by starting with Jesus’ concluding words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.”  (Matthew 7:24)  From this, Piper proposes the following definition for Godly Wisdom: “hearing and doing God’s Word.”  But because not every circumstance is covered by God’s Word, Piper is compelled to add, “Wisdom must include a sensitive, mature judgment or discernment of how the fear of the Lord should work itself out in all the circumstances not specifically dealt with in the Bible.”

I find a somewhat different picture of Biblical wisdom emerging in Proverbs.  Generally speaking, verses in Proverbs are related to wisdom either in a generic sense, or by way of specific examples.  In chapter 4, generic verses are 1-10, 12-13, and 20-22, which involve listening to wisdom, seeking it out, and following it (1-7, 13, 20-21); and the rewards of doing so (8-10, 12, 22).  Specific examples are verses 11, 14-19, and 23-27.  In these, wisdom is depicted solely in moral terms.  Verse 11 is a key verse because in it Solomon specifically equates wisdom and righteousness.  “I teach you wisdom and her ways in all that I profess; instructing as I’m leading you in paths of righteousness.”  This conflation of wisdom and righteousness is found throughout.  In simple terms, wisdom is following the way of the righteous (18, 23, 25-27); and avoiding the way of the wicked (14-17, 19, 24).  For Solomon, wisdom and righteousness are one and the same (as are foolishness and wickedness).

Proverbs 4 is illustrative, but consistent with the two principal messages about wisdom found throughout all of Proverbs, namely, 1) Wisdom is important; and 2) Wisdom is demonstrated by righteousness or virtue.  This seems to be precisely what we read in the book of James, which probably has the best description of Biblical wisdom.  Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.  But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.  But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  (James 3:13-17)

What James is saying is that those who harbor wickedness such as envy or pride in their hearts do not have Biblical wisdom. Whereas those who exhibit virtues that are pure, peace-loving, considerate, etc. have Biblical wisdom.  From this I conclude that Biblical wisdom is the same as Christian virtue, which means that the pursuit of Biblical wisdom is the pursuit of virtue.

Wisdom in all matters is a good thing.  No doubt what Steve Jobs accomplished in his life was the result of great wisdom.  But all wisdom is not Biblical wisdom.  Biblical wisdom is first and foremost a matter of whether we are living lives of virtue, and secondarily how we decide problems of an ethical and moral nature.

That said, I don’t want to put too fine a point on defining “Biblical wisdom” as virtue for several reasons.  1) For one thing, “Biblical” wisdom itself is merely a construct based on what is revealed in Proverbs.  Nowhere does Proverbs refer to “Biblical” wisdom or “Godly” wisdom, it is always just wisdom.  2) Moreover, even if the wisdom in Proverbs is a matter of virtue, which I believe it is, that doesn’t mean that the kind of secular wisdom demonstrated by Steve Jobs is unimportant.  Indeed, Jesus sent out his disciples with the caution to, “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  (Matthew 10:16)  Other translations say “as wise as serpents.”  It does us no credit to be foolish in our finances, health, work, or any of a myriad of non-moral matters we face daily.  3)  Finally, there are many matters of an ethical nature that do not involve a choice between good and evil, but between two matters more or less equally virtuous.  These are some of the hardest decisions we must make, and require great wisdom indeed.

S

**********

Proverbs 5

1  O listen, children, to the words
a father speaks to you;
Attend so insight you will gain,
and understanding too.

2  The precepts that I have are good,
the learning in them sound;
So don’t forsake these things I teach,
or what my words expound.

3  For I was once a child like you –
I was my father’s son;
My mother also cherished me –
her most beloved one.

4  My father said, “Cling to my words,
   and don’t let them depart;
Keep my commands and you will live
   if they are in your heart.”

“Get understanding for your path,
   get wisdom for your way;
Do not forget my words to you,
   or turn from what I say.”

6  “Do not abandon wisdom, child,
   and she will keep you whole;
Just always love and cherish her,
   and she will guard your soul.”

“The way of wisdom is supreme,
   so hold it close to you;
Get understanding for your way,
   whatever else you do.”

“Love wisdom like a special prize,
   and she will lift your name;
If you embrace and cherish her,
   she’ll honor you the same.”

“She’ll place a garland on your head –
   a wreath beyond compare;
She’ll give to you a noble crown –
   a diadem to wear.”

***

10  O hear, my child, these words I speak,
accept what they bestow;
For if you do, then many years
of life you’ll surely know.

11  I teach you wisdom and her ways
in all that I profess;
Instructing as I’m leading you
in paths of righteousness.

12  Now wisdom helps you when you walk,
so nothing holds you back;
You will not stumble when you run,
or trip upon your track.

13  Hold to instruction all you can,
don’t let it get away;
For it is surely life to you,
so guard it well today.

14  Don’t set your foot upon the path
where wicked people stalk;
Or ever follow in the way
where evildoers walk.

15  Avoid the pathway of the vile,
and on it do not tread;
Just turn your eyes and pass it by,
and go your way instead.

16  The wicked cannot find their rest
till evil they have done;
They find themselves deprived of sleep
until they’ve hurt someone.

17  They eat the bread of wickedness
until their gut is filled;
They drink the wine of violence,
and not a drop is spilled.

***

18  The pathway of the righteous soul
is like the morning the sun;
That shines more brilliant with the day
than when it’s just begun.

19  But wicked people walk a path
that’s darker than a tomb;
They do not know what causes them
to stumble in the gloom.

***

20  My child, please listen to my words,
attend to what I say;
O turn your ear to what I speak
to help you on your way.

21  Don’t let my words escape your sight,
or from your mind depart;
But keep them always close at hand,
forever in your heart.

22  These words are life for everyone
who finds them out at last;
They’re health for body and the flesh –
a healing unsurpassed.

23  O guard your heart above all else,
with all that you hold true;
For from it flows the springs of life,
and everything you do.

24  Avoid perverse and wayward speech,
and all that is a lie;
Eschew deceit and scheming talk,
don’t let it tarry nigh.

25  Look only forward with your eyes,
don’t let them deviate;
Direct your sight on what’s ahead,
and let your gaze be straight.

26  O ponder where your feet will go –
the paths that are secure;
Be steadfast and dependable,
so all your ways are sure.

27  Don’t ever turn this way or that,
not either left or right;
But keep your foot from evil ways,
and all that is not light.

 

Proverbs 3

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

This is the third in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  Today’s blog contains my rendering of Proverbs 3, preceded by a brief reflection.

**********

The bad news about the Covid-19 pandemic just keeps coming.  The daily statistics on the virus are, frankly, more than most of us can process.  Healthwise, there are the number of people infected, the number on respirators, and the number who have died.  Financially, there are falling stock prices, business failures, and shrinking retirement savings.  All this along with job losses, empty grocery shelves, and closed stores.  Never in our lifetime has anything so impacted the entire world as this virus.  No nation, no people group, no ideology, no religion is exempt.  While the virus itself is particularly harmful to the elderly and those with underlying health issues, even the young can succumb to it.  And regardless of the state of our health and finances, all of us are impacted by quarantine orders and social distancing.  Against this backdrop, Proverbs 3 has much to ponder.

The Wisdom of Proverbs Is Not Our Hope
The wisdom of Proverbs is not our hope, although there are many verses that seem to suggest the opposite.  I am referring to verses that say that the way of wisdom leads to well-being.  For example, Proverbs 3 promises:  long life, peace, and prosperity (verse 2); health and nourishment (verse 8); barns and vats that overflow (verse 10); and long life, riches and honor (verse16).  Those of us who follow Christ and seek the wisdom found in Scripture might be excused if we are confused by these verses.  Particularly if for years we have lived wisely in terms of our health, investments, and work ethic – but now are facing illness, dwindling savings, and/or job loss.

It is certain that these verses contain practical truths for good living, namely, that there is a correlation between following the way of wisdom and a better life.  It is similar to the correlation between following the best medical wisdom and avoiding infection from the Covid-19 virus.  If we are vigilant in our hand-washing, social distancing, wearing facemasks, etc., we will likely remain healthy.  But it is not a guarantee – some people who do all these things will still contract the virus; and some who foolishly do nothing will remain healthy.  But overall, if we do these things it is more likely than not that we will be safe.  If you are skeptical of this interpretation and believe that the way of wisdom in Proverbs guarantees prosperity, you need look no further than Psalm 73, which indicates that the righteous do sometimes suffer while the wicked do indeed sometimes prosper.  “This is what the wicked are like – always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.  Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence.  All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments.”  (Psalm 73:12-14)  Jesus himself affirmed this principle when he declared to his disciples, “in this world you will have trouble.”  (John 16:33)

The Lord Is Our Hope
However, not all Proverbs are premised on following the way of wisdom per se.  Consider Proverbs 3:5-6, which are premised on trusting the Lord, with the concomitant promise that that our pathways will be straight. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.” We might well ask whether these verses are also correlative as are the verses that promise health and wealth?  In other words, will the Lord sometimes, but not always, make our pathways straight if we trust him?  Or is “trusting the Lord with all your heart,” deeper than simply following the way of wisdom?  Is it possible that these two verses contain something closer to a guarantee?

2013 was a difficult year for me – much more than what I am experiencing during the Covid-19 pandemic.  In August of that year I lost my father to prostate cancer.  In his final months I traveled frequently to his home in Maine to be with him and my mother, and to help with his final affairs.  When he finally died, I didn’t have a lot of time to mourn his passing because I was also dealing with my own medical problem.  Despite a lifetime of vigorous physical exercise, I had developed a faulty aortic valve and aneurysm on my ascending aorta.  In October, I underwent open-heart surgery to replace these.  The surgery itself went well; and by God’s grace, the surgeon’s skill, and great care, I came home four days later.  Throughout the experience, I remember very little physical pain.  In fact, the pain was so well controlled at the hospital that by the time I got home, I did not need pain medication.  The emotional and spiritual battle though was just beginning.

Nighttime was the hardest.  I was “sleeping” on the living room couch so that I would not disturb Pat.  Although I did not have a lot of physical pain, I often felt my heart beating, which caused great distress.  When this happened, I would sit up in a panic and start to pray.  And what did I pray?  Well, many things, but first and foremost was Proverbs 3:5-6.  With apologies to my present translation, the NIV version will forever be imprinted on my soul.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.”  I prayed this hundreds of times in the weeks following the surgery.  Occasionally, I would alternate it with Psalm 23, but always I returned to Proverbs. And the more I prayed, the more I realized that more than physical healing, I also desperately needed emotional healing from the awful fear that struck in the darkness of the night.  There is something about fear in the night that is a lonely place, where pride and self-sufficiency are stripped away and all that remains is despair.  At such times the only hope is to trust in the Lord, and like the Psalmist to cry out to him – When in distress I begged the Lord to listen to my plea; and he responded to my cry and set my spirit free.” (Psalm 118:5)

One night, several weeks into my recovery, something unexpected happened.  As I prayed, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of goodwill and love towards everyone I had ever known – friend and foe alike.  It was like a wave washed over me, and for the first time in weeks I felt at peace.  Scripture tells us that, “perfect love drives out fear.”  (1 John 4:18)  Perhaps it was the perfect love of God that came over me as I prayed, perhaps not.  Nonetheless, it was an inflection point in my recovery.  From then on, while at times I still experienced fear, it had lost its death grip on my soul.

When Proverbs 3:5-6 speaks of straight pathways, it does so as metaphor.  A metaphor that does not represent so much a life of health and wealth; as one marked by freedom from anxiety and fear.  This life is captured well by the Psalmist, God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”  (Psalm 46:1-3)  Things around us may be giving way, our world may be turned upside down by Covid-19, but if the Lord is our hope, we need not fear.

In these trying and uncertain times, these are words to live by – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your pathways straight.”

S

**********

Proverbs 3

1  My child, do not forget my words –
the teaching that I share;
But fill your heart with my commands,
and keep them always there.

2  By holding on to all these things,
you’ll find your years increase;
And they will bring prosperity,
well-being, health, and peace.

3  Cling tight to love and faithfulness,
and don’t let them depart;
O bind them firm around your neck,
and write them on your heart.

4  If you will do these things I say,
then you will win acclaim,
As God and people everywhere
speak highly of your name.

5  O trust upon the Lord your God
with all your heart and mind;
On understanding of your own,
don’t lean or be inclined.

6  Acknowledge God in all your ways,
forever let it show;
And he will make your path more straight
than you could ever know.

7  Do not be wise in your own eyes,
and think that you’re okay;
But reverence and fear the Lord,
from evil turn away.

8  These things will surely bring you health,
and make your body whole;
The nourishment that you receive
will satisfy your soul.

9  O honor God with what you have –
your wealth and all it yields;
Give him the best of what you grow –
the firstfruits of your fields.

10  For then your barns will nearly burst
with everything you grow;
And wine will surely fill your vats
until they overflow.

***

11  My child, when God reproaches you,
don’t treat it with disdain;
Do not despise his discipline,
no matter what the pain.

12  The Lord reproaches those he loves –
those cherished in his sight;
Just as the parents discipline
the child of their delight.

***

13  How blessed are the ones who find
the way that makes them wise;
For understanding rightly gained
brings joy that’s like a prize.

14  For wisdom is more valuable
than silver goods untold;
She yields a gain far better than
a treasure trove of gold.

15  Yes, wisdom is a precious jewel –
no ruby is so rare;
There’s no desire of the heart
that ever can compare.

16  For wisdom holds in her right hand,
a life of many years;
While in her left she offers wealth
with accolades and cheers.

17  Now wisdom is a pleasant way,
where all good things increase;
Her pathways are in harmony
with gentleness and peace.

18  For wisdom is a tree of life
to those who hold her best;
And everyone who clings to her
will certainly be blessed.

***

19  By wisdom God created earth,
and put it in its place;
By understanding formed the sky,
and set it into space.

20  By wisdom God split land from sea,
and caused the streams to flow;
He made the clouds to give forth dew,
that falls on all below.

***

21  My child, keep wisdom ever close,
hold understanding tight;
Don’t let discernment get away,
or judgment slip your sight.

22  For they will surely give you life,
and animate your soul;
And like a garland for your neck,
they’ll make your spirit whole.

23  Then you will safely walk along
with no concern at all;
There’s nothing that can trip your foot,
or ever make you fall.

24  When lying down you’ll not be scared,
your slumber will be deep –
A time of sweet serenity,
while drifting into sleep.

25  You’ll never fear calamities
will strike you unaware;
Like storms that blow the wicked down,
and leave them in despair.

26  Indeed, the Lord will keep you safe,
he’ll never leave your side;
He’ll keep your foot from being caught,
no mishap will betide.

***

27  Do not refrain from doing good
to those whose needs are great;
But help in any way you can,
and do not hesitate.

28  Do not tell neighbors in their need,
“Come back another day”;
For when their need is in your hand,
it’s no time to delay.

29  Do not cause neighbors any pain,
or plot to do them harm;
For those who live in trust near you,
have no grounds for alarm.

30  Do not accuse just anyone
when you do not have cause;
When they have done no harm to you,
or broken any laws.

31  Do not be envious of those
who act with cruelty;
Don’t match the violence of their ways,
or copy what you see.

32  The Lord detests perversity,
and those who go astray;
But those who walk in righteousness,
he counsels everyday.

33  The Lord puts curses on the homes
of those who live in sin;
But blesses those of righteous souls,
and all who dwell within.

34  The Lord mocks everyone who scoffs,
he’s scornful of the proud;
But shows his favor to the meek,
the beaten and the cowed.

35  The wise inherit accolades
with honor and acclaim;
But fools get only high contempt,
embarrassment and shame.

Proverbs 2

“My child, receive these words I speak, accept the things I say; Hold tight and treasure my commands so they don’t slip away.”  (Proverbs 2:1)

This is the second in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  Today’s blog contains my translation of Proverbs 2, preceded by a brief comment.

Comment On Proverbs 2
Proverbs 2 continues the extended wisdom poem of Proverbs 1-9.  In Proverbs 1, Solomon introduces these proverbs as being profitable for the young and inexperienced, as well as increasing the knowledge and understanding of those who already have some wisdom (see Proverbs 1:4-5).  There is no gender mentioned, and certainly these proverbs have always been understood as applying to all people – male and female alike.  However, immediately after the introduction Solomon specifically addresses them to his “son.”  For example, Proverbs 1:8 (NIV) starts, Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction … .”  This reference to his “son” appears throughout Proverbs.  For example, the present Chapter 2 starts with the words, “My son, if you accept my words …”  (Proverbs 2:1)

On one level this can be understood as Solomon writing the proverbs for a son, while offering their wisdom to others (men and women) as well.  According to the translators of the New English Translation (NET), Solomon apparently wrote many of the Proverbs for a young prince in the royal court.  “It is likely that collections of proverbs grew up in the royal courts and were designed for the training of the youthful prince.  But once the collection was included in the canon, the term ‘son’ would be expanded to mean a disciple, for all the people were to learn wisdom when young.  It would not be limited to sons alone but would include daughters.”  The various translations of Proverbs are split over whether to use “son” or “child.” For example, the NIV and ESV use “son,” whereas the NET and GNT use “child.”

I raise this because in Proverbs 2, Solomon briefly introduces a new theme (that he fleshes out in much greater detail in chapters 5-7).  This is his warning against adultery that appears in verses 16-19.  For example, verses 16-17 (NIV)
     Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman,
from the wayward woman with her seductive words,
     who has left the partner of her youth
and ignored the covenant she made before God.

Obviously, this is a very one-sided warning that Solomon gives about adultery – beware of the adulterous woman.  If this warning is only for a young man, then I suppose it is reasonable to warn him to be wary of a married woman who would attempt to seduce him.  But if Solomon’s homily on wisdom is also to be profitable to a daughter, then this must be understood as a caution to her to be wary of a married man who would attempt to seduce her.  [A greater and in many ways more troubling concern, to my way of thinking.]  Now I don’t want to get myself entangled in a hermeneutical web, but I raise the issue because most of chapters 5, 6, and 7 is concerned with the adulterous and “wayward woman.”  In fact more than 25% of Proverbs 1-9 relate to this single point – the dangers of an adulterous woman!

For the relevant verses (16-19) in Proverbs 2, I have chosen to translate them in a way that could apply to both men and women.  So rather than cautioning only a son against an “adulterous woman,” I interpret the verses by cautioning everyone against “those who would seduce.”  For example, I have rendered verse 16:
     It’s wisdom too that keeps you safe from those who would seduce,
From those with words that draw you in, but morally are loose.

[I haven’t decided as yet how I will handle the 66 verses about adulterous women in Proverbs 5-7.  But I’ll not worry about that now, this day has trouble enough.]

The real rub for me comes with the life Solomon was leading – 700 wives and 300 concubines (see 1 Kings 11:3).  Who was he to write about seductive, adulterous women who break their wedding vow made before God?  Talk about chutzpah!  Was Solomon really so blind to his adultery?  Hubris it would seem has no limits.  And talk about irony – it was Solomon’s father David who committed adultery with Solomon’s mother Bathsheba!  Perhaps it would have been well if Nathan had been around to confront Solomon like he had to David.

Still, to throw out Solomon’s wisdom on adultery because of his roots and lifestyle, would be to make a classic genetic fallacy.  We live in a time where infidelity and sexual sin is rampant and we need much wisdom – not only in avoiding sexual sin ourselves but engaging with the culture over the dangers of such.  Indeed, Solomon makes a key point in Proverbs 1-9, namely, the dangers of adultery and the critical importance of sexual control in our lives.  I may quibble about Solomon’s myopic focus on adulterous women, but nonetheless he is right that we need great wisdom in how we handle our sexuality.

Ronald Rolheiser writes elegantly about our need for deep wisdom in regard to our sexuality.  “One of the fundamental tasks of spirituality, therefore, is to help us to understand and channel our sexuality correctly.  This, however, is no easy task.  Sexuality is such a powerful fire that it is not always easy to channel it in life-giving ways.  Its very power, and it is the most powerful force on the planet, makes it a force not just for formidable love, life, and blessing but also for the worst hate, death, and destruction imaginable.  Sex is responsible for most of the ecstasies that occur on the planet, but it is also responsible for lots of murders and suicides.  It is the most powerful of all fires, the best of all fires, the most dangerous of all fires, and the fire which, ultimately, lies at the base of everything, including the spiritual life.”  (The Holy Longing, 193)

S

**********

Proverbs 2

1  My child, receive these words I speak,
accept the things I say;
Hold tight and treasure my commands
so they don’t slip away.

2  Attune your ear attentively,
and open up your eyes;
Seek understanding in your heart
of all things that are wise.

3  To know discernment call aloud,
for understanding shout;
For insight take a mighty breath,
and let your voice cry out.

4  Make wisdom be your highest search –
a quest to which you’re bound;
Like seeking hidden silver coins
long buried in the ground.

5  By doing this you’ll understand
the way to fear the Lord;
And certain knowledge of our God
will be your just reward.

6  For wisdom issues from the Lord,
and understanding too;
He opens up his mouth and speaks,
and knowledge rushes through.

7  To those who live in righteousness,
he promises success;
To those whose lives are virtuous,
he shelters from distress.

8  Our God protects the just from harm,
and guards them on their way;
He watches those who walk in faith
and do not go astray.

***

9  If you take heed of what I say,
then you will be aware –
Of every good and righteous path,
and what is just and fair.

10  For wisdom will invade your heart,
and make your spirit right;
And knowledge will seem wonderful,
and bring your soul delight.

11  Discretion will watch over you,
and keep your life secure;
While understanding will protect
and guard you evermore.

***

12  Yes wisdom will deliver you,
and keep you far away,
From those whose words pervert the truth,
and from their evil way.

13  For wicked people turn aside
from righteousness and light;
They choose instead the way of sin,
that’s darker than the night.

14  They find delight in doing wrong,
while evil they embrace;
They cling to their depravity
without a bit of grace.

15  They do not walk the narrow path,
their ways are never straight;
They always act immorally,
from truth they deviate.

***

16  It’s wisdom too that keeps you safe
from those who would seduce,
From those with words that draw you in,
but morally are loose.

17  For they have left the one they loved –
the partner of their youth;
They broke their promise made to God,
and sacrificed the truth.

18  Beware of the adulterer
whose house is like a cave;
The path for all who head that way
leads surely to the grave.

19  For no one going to that house,
and passing through the door,
Will ever turn around and find
the path of life once more.

***

20  Now if you heed the things I’ve said,
you’ll walk upon the way,
That good and righteous people take
and follow everyday.

21  The righteous will forever stay,
and live upon the land;
The blameless too will dwell secure,
where solidly they stand.

22  But those of evil temperament
will soon be rooted out;
The faithless forcefully removed,
like dead plants in a drought.

Proverbs 1

To reverence and fear the Lord will start to make one wise  (Proverbs 7a)

Background
About ten years ago I translated the book of Psalms into poetic meter.  This is known as a metrical psalter because the plain text of Psalms has been put into rhyme.  Metrical psalters go back at least to the Protestant Reformation where many Christians saw the Psalms as the exclusive form of worship text.  The primary purpose in converting the Psalms into meter is so that they can be easily set to music and sung.  For example, “The Scottish Metrical Psalter,” which was approved by the Church of Scotland in 1650, is in use to this day.

Meter is a way to make plain text more accessible and more memorable.  Although any text can be memorized, it requires an intentional and concentrated effort.  However, when a text is put to music it can be memorized almost without thought.  Just think about how many songs you know simply because you have heard them repeated.  Metered verse is also easier to recall than plain text, even when it is not sung.  Again, think about how many childhood poems you still remember today.

Proverbs, like Psalms, is a poetical book, which means that a translation into meter would be consistent with its form.  However, there are obvious challenges in doing so.  For one, Proverbs is not a collection of sacred songs or prayers like Psalms, but is a form of wisdom literature.  Furthermore, there are two very distinct types of poetry in Proverbs.  Proverbs 1-9 comprise an extended “wisdom” poem.  Proverbs 10-29 include primarily two-line poetic couplets that are generally disconnected one from the next with the subject constantly changing.  Proverbs 30 and the beginning of 31 include longer poems.  The remainder of Proverbs 31 is a poem to celebrate a virtuous women/wife.

Despite its stylistic variations, I have decided to make a verse-by-verse translation of Proverbs into common meter.  I have no grand expectations in doing so.  Although metered verses could be easier to memorize, it is certain that Proverbs would never by sung as some do with metrical Psalms.  Mostly this is a private discipline for study.  But it is also challenging and fun, and in these troubled times that is not such a bad thing.  My hope is that in the reading others may benefit as well.

Starting with this post, I am going to share chapters as I translate them.  Along the way, I intend to comment on anything I find noteworthy.

Comment On Proverbs 1

1)  The fear of the Lord is the foundation of all wisdom.

The sure foundation of wisdom is not to be found in “how to” books, or YouTube videos, or the media, or politicians, or our feelings; but only in the fear of the Lord!  The key is verse 7:

“To reverence and fear the Lord will start to make one wise;
but fools detest intelligence, instruction they despise.”

“Fear” is also translated as “reverence,” which gives a fuller meaning to the verse because “fear” suggests that we are to be in dread or terror of God.  “Reverence,” on the other hand, means to stand in awe of God and regard him with deep respect.  Unless we truly revere God, we will not take his word seriously.  This is why the fear of the Lord is the start of being wise – the reverence we have for him is reflected in the reverence and value we put on his word.

There is much involved in whether or not we follow the wisdom of Proverbs, but at its root is whether or not we truly revere the Lord.  If we do, then we will desire the knowledge and insights in Proverbs.  If we do not, then we are unlikely to have much interest in their teaching.

2)  Proverbs is both wisdom literature and poetry.

This means that we must read it from both perspectives.  As wisdom literature it provides truths about how we are to live our lives.  Paramount among these is the importance of wisdom itself in guiding our actions.  However, if we think about Proverbs only as wisdom literature conveying unembellished, literal truths, then much will be missed.  Remember, this is also poetry with all of the metaphors, imagery and hyperbole that entails.  Poetry engages our imaginations in order to reveal deeper truths.  For example, consider verses 10 and 11:

My child, if wicked people call, enticing you to sin;
Do not capitulate to them, beware and don’t give in. 
(10)

For they may say, “Come join with us, let’s find someone to kill –
O let’s attack the innocent,
just simply for the thrill.” (11)

If we read verse 11 solely as wisdom literature, we might well pass it over because it’s pretty certain no one has ever asked us to kill someone.  But when read as poetry we may want to consder that “killing” someone is hyperbole for any harm done to others.  Jesus made this exact point when he said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”  (Matthew 5:21-22)

Similarly, if we read verse 10 literally, its application may elude us.  For where has a wicked person ever enticed us to sin?  No doubt this is remote from most of our experiences.  Perhaps someone has asked us to lie or cheat for them, but certainly not to rob and kill someone.  But there is a deeper truth here because there is much subtlety in wickedness, as is revealed throughout Proverbs.  For wherever there is slander, lying, and unforgiveness, we recognize the hand of wickedness.  It is not so much that a wicked person asks us to follow them.  Rather, the enticement is a psychological permission to emulate their behavior.  This we must resist.  Proverbs is unequivocal on this point.

Ronald Rolheiser writes that we must always live, “in respect, graciousness, and love.  These are nonnegotiable essentials within Christian charity.  They are also part and parcel of all that is noble within humanity.  Whenever we step outside of these, as we often do in our discourse with those who are not of our political or ecclesial mind-set, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the high cause we think we are serving justifies this fundamental lapse in our humanity and charity.  … The perennial temptation, especially when the issue at stake is a critical one, is to bracket the essentials (respect, graciousness, and love) on the basis of cause and, in essence, fall into a way of thinking that says:  This issue is so important that I need not be respectful, gracious, and loving in this instance.  I may demonize an opponent, assassinate character, name-call, and use everything in my power, perhaps even violence, to have my truth win out.  Because I am right, and this is so important, I can bracket basic respect.”  (Sacred Fire 265-266)

Proverbs tells us that this is not only wrong, but it will end up badly for us.  This is a theme that runs throughout Proverbs 1 – if we follow the path of sin, we will reap what we have sown.  In the words of verse 31:

“And thus, you’ll eat what you have grown – the fruit of your own way;
You’ll doubtless get what you deserve, as one who’s gone astray.”

S

**********

Proverbs 1

1  These proverbs are from Solomon,
whose wisdom was renowned;
As David’s son and Israel’s king,
he royally was crowned.

2  He wrote these down so we may know
and learn to recognize,
Insightful words and good advice,
and sayings that are wise.

3  They teach us wisdom we can use,
instruction we can trust –
To live in truth and honesty
and do what’s right and just.

4  For those who lack experience,
they demonstrate what’s true;
For those still young and immature,
they help them think things through.

5  And even those already wise,
they help their knowledge grow;
For those who are intelligent,
they guide in what to know.

6  To those who understand in part,
they usefully explain –
The words and riddles of the wise,
and knowledge they contain.

***

7  To reverence and fear the Lord
will start to make one wise;
But fools detest intelligence,
instruction they despise.

***

8  O hear, my child, your father’s words
and what he teaches you;
And everything your mother says –
take heed and don’t eschew.

9  For all their words are like a crown,
a garland for your head,
A necklace of the highest grade,
that’s spun from silver thread.

10 My child, if wicked people call,
enticing you to sin;
Do not capitulate to them,
beware and don’t give in.

11  For they may say, “Come join with us,
   let’s find someone to kill –
O let’s attack the innocent,
   just simply for the thrill.”

12  “Alive and whole we’ll swallow them,
   like those dropped in a grave;
We’ll overwhelm and bury them,
   entombed within a cave.”

13  “And we shall plunder all they have –
   their precious goods and gold;
With these we’ll fill our houses up
   to more than they can hold.”

14  “So join now our conspiracy
   to capture all this loot;
And all the riches taken in,
   we’ll share without dispute.”

***

15  O no, my child, do not give in,
don’t ever walk their way;
Don’t set your foot upon their path,
or do the things they say.

16  For evil is their way of life,
it’s there they fix their eyes;
They always act upon their hate,
ensuring someone dies.

17  It’s said that birds have eyes to see
wherever nets are spread;
They know enough to stay away,
or they will wind up dead.

18  But wicked people do not see,
the nets that they extend,
Will be a trap for them alone,
which kills them in the end.

19  O surely this will come to pass
to all who live by strife;
For those who lust for unjust gain
will sacrifice their life.

***

20  O hear, O hear, now Wisdom’s call,
she’s crying everywhere –
In markets, ways and thoroughfares,
and in the public square.

21  She cries within the city gates,
where many she can reach;
Above the noise of bustling streets,
she makes this fervent speech:

22  “How long will you be simpletons,
   like those who play the fool?
How long will you hate what is wise,
   and all things ridicule?”

23  “If you repent at my rebuke,
   your present ways foreswear;
I’ll pour my spirit out to you,
   and all I know, will share.”

24  “But many times I’ve called to you,
   so you would understand;
Yet you did not attend to me
   when I stretched out my hand.”

25  “My counsel you have heeded not,
   my words you’ve not believed;
My reprimand you have ignored,
   it’s import not received.”

26  “And so whenever trouble comes,
   and tragedy is near;
I’ll laugh at your calamity,
   and mock you in your fear.”

27  “When terror strikes you like a storm –
   a fierce and driving rain;
You’ll find it leaves you in distress,
   in agony and pain.”

28  “And though you call to hear my voice,
   you’ll not perceive a sound;
And though with diligence you search,
   there’s nowhere I’ll be found.”

29  “For all of this was caused by you,
   since knowledge you ignored;
You hated learning what is true,
   and did not fear the Lord.”

30  “You did not seek to learn from me,
   or do what I advised;
My counsel you did not obey,
   my discipline despised.”

31  “And thus, you’ll eat what you have grown –
   the fruit of your own way;
You’ll doubtless get what you deserve,
   as one who’s gone astray.”

32  “For wayward people surely die
   when wisdom they reject;
And fools that show complacency,
   soon find their lives are wrecked.”

33  “But everyone who hears my voice
   will surely live in peace;
They’ll dwell secure and be at ease,
   and all their fears shall cease.”

The Long Game

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.  Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.  (Ecclesiastes 9:17-18)

Faith has not come easy to me.  Although I was raised in a nominally Christian home, secular matters were always the first order of business.  My two brothers and I were pretty much forced to attend church as children, but once we were confirmed (in a Lutheran church), nothing more was said about faith and one by one we turned our focus to school and athletics.  My parents seldom attended church together that I recall.  My mother went fairly regularly when we were young, but stopped altogether in her mid 50’s as she retreated into discontent and bitterness.  My father, on the other hand, had a deep interest in spiritual matters.  And while faith, at least the easy believism of some evangelicals, was hard for him, he never stopped seeking and eventually became a Roman Catholic.

I have written in the past of my own faith journey from agnostic to Christian.  About a distress prayer I made in a time of great fear.  About a sign from God in the form of a rainbow.  About a “chance” reading of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  About three years of intense reading and reflection.  And most impactfully, about the steadfast and gentle witness of my wife Pat and several close Christian friends – people who prayed for me for many years, but whose principal witness was their consistent embodiment of the values they professed.  In the words of Eugene Peterson, theirs was a long obedience in the same direction.  But mostly I have written about my continued personal journey of faith as I have endeavored to learn how to live a Christian life.

Today’s post marks the 50th reflection I have written over the same number of months.  It has been a good discipline for me to write like this.  A month has seemed just the right length of time to collect my thoughts and organize them within some sort of coherent framework.  I have never presumed to tell others how to live out their faith, but have simply used this blog as a way to publically reflect on my own journey and what I believe are the essential teachings of Jesus.  There is nothing magical about the number fifty, but it feels right to me that I should take a break for a while and turn my focus elsewhere.

I have written about the pursuit of virtue because it is the way to follow Christ.  Moreover, it is our principal witness to the world.  I complete this series of writings with a reflection on how the evangelical church in America is straying from the way of Christ and losing its witness through involvement in politics.  I have been reluctant to comment on politics in this blog because there are people I love on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  I have also avoided doing so because I don’t like the controversy that often emerges from those with deep-seated opinions.  What I write now is not to advocate for or against any political candidate or party, but about how Christians should play the long game in politics as the best way to witness for Christ.  In any event, I appeal to your grace if anything I write causes you offense.

No political event in the past four years was more surprising than the election of Donald Trump.  And no response more stunning to me than his embrace by many evangelical leaders.  It is not because they like his outrageous and often immoral conduct, but rather that he promises to enact policies and appoint judges that they support.  The quid pro quo that he demands and receives is unquestioned loyalty no matter what his conduct.  Anyone who speaks against his character literally loses a seat at the table.  To be fair, I have not heard any evangelical leader say that immoral and unethical behavior is okay, but their silence is deafening and contrary to God’s word.  For example, Paul tells us, Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”  (Ephesians 5:11)  Indeed, Jesus commands us to publically confront the sins of those who claim to be Christians and don’t listen.  (Matthew 18:15-17)  God hates sin and no doubt commands us to confront it because many people interpret silence as tacit assent, which is even more problematic.

These evangelical leaders are not bad people nor is their desire to protect their beliefs wrong.  Indeed, many of their goals are laudable.  However, there are two problems.  The first is that God’s word is “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)  Evil always begets more evil, and remaining mute in the face of evil is complicity.  The way of Christ is the way of love – that is the only way if we are to follow him.  The second problem is that their goals are short-sighted and doomed to fail.  There is no policy or judge that is worth the cost.  For when political winds change (as they always do) and leaders change, policies and judges will also change.  What is gained today can be lost tomorrow.  And then all that remains is our integrity, our virtue, our character, our moral voice.  In the words of Scripture, “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”  (Isaiah 40:8)  Make no mistake, our witness is always tied to our values – to the way we treat and love others.  It is certain that these values are the practical distinctive of Christianity in our culture.  If we compromise our values, what remains of our faith witness is very thin indeed.

I remember well the ethical failings of Bill Clinton and the moral outrage of evangelicals.  I was not a believer at the time, and had no love for the Christian right.  Yet, I knew their criticism was correct – infidelity and lying are wrong.  Soon after this my spiritual journey took off.  Today, God’s word has not changed, but many of the same evangelical leaders who were so outraged by Clinton’s actions now embrace a president whose words and actions are anathema to people of faith.  This hypocrisy is precisely what Jesus condemned in the religious leaders of his day.

Please do not misinterpret what I write – I do not opine on whom a Christian should vote for – elections always present a binary choice that must be weighed by one’s own conscience.  But regardless of whom we vote for, we must never compromise God’s moral principles.  We must expect our evangelical leaders to play the long game and speak the truth (in love) regardless of the short-term personal cost.

Despite my concerns, I remain optimistic about our faith because the words of the Lord are: I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18)  Even as I write about what I see as a heartbreaking miscalculation by many evangelical leaders, there are other Christian leaders who are appalled at what they are witnessing and who are daring to speak truth to power.  But more importantly, I know many, many followers of Christ who are truly “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  For the most part, they are quietly going through life with all of its ups and downs while remaining faithful to the Lord.  I have written about many of them.  Here are some living out the Beatitudes daily.  Here are some shining the light of Christ into dark areas of the word.  Here are some serving immigrants and the homeless.  Here are some caring for the elderly.  And here are many more whose daily prayer is, “Thy kingdom come Thy will be done.”

And so I bid you farewell for a while.  I expect to be writing again, but not monthly.  I thank you all for your patience, kind words, and grace.  May the Lord truly bless you.

S

 

Resolve

“I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin”  (Psalm 39:1)

Today we welcome a new year.  For roughly 40% of us Americans, this means a New Year’s Resolution in which we resolve to accomplish something that has eluded us in the past.  According to one source, here are the top ten New Year’s Resolutions:
1.   Exercise more
2.   Lose weight
3.   Get organized
4.   Learn a new skill or hobby
5.   Live life to the fullest
6.   Save more and/or spend less money
7.   Quit smoking
8.   Spend more time with family and friends
9.   Travel more
10.  Read more

I recently conducted an informal survey of resolutions with about twenty Christian men between the ages of 45 and 80, and the results were remarkably similar.  Roughly 40% make a New Year’s resolution in any given year.  For those who make resolutions, I asked two things:  1) name a resolution you recall making in the past; and 2) name a resolution you are considering for 2020.  Regarding the past – only three resolutions were mentioned and all are found on the above list – “exercise more,” “lose weight,” and “read more.”  The one significant difference is that resolutions to “read more” specifically mentioned the Bible.  I’ll reveal their 2020 resolutions in a bit, but first a few thoughts.

Why do so many of us make resolutions?  The allure of a fresh start and the idea of improving oneself no doubt play a significant role.   But at its root there is a vision of a better life – one in which a bad habit that has entrapped us is broken, or one in which a beneficial pattern of behavior is established.  In this regard, all of the “top ten” resolutions have value as no doubt each of them can improve the quality of a physical life.  I find it curious however that none of these ten has a significant moral component.  For the most part they are morally neutral, meaning they are not inherently good or bad. This does not mean that they have no moral component because they do.  For example, improving one’s health is a way we care for the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Still, their main focus is on temporal matters.

Because their primary orientation is not in the moral realm, these types of resolutions will not prepare us for the spiritual challenges that will undoubtedly confront us in the year ahead.  Such challenges typically hit us in the form of temptations – everything from lust, anger, and pride, to gossip, criticism, and worry.  Or, in the words of the Apostle John, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (1 John 2:16)  If we are unprepared, spiritual struggles born of such temptations have the potential to turn us away from God, harm our relationships with other people, and generally eat away at our faith journey.

It is important that we care for our physical body through exercise and diet, and improve our mind through reading, and travel.  But no less so that we care for our soul, which we do by following the way of Jesus.  This is not an abstract belief in Christ, but an active robust faith developed through practicing the virtues modeled and taught by Jesus, such as humility, forgiveness, love, honesty, purity, etc.  As followers of Christ, the extent to which we pursue godly virtues goes the heart of what we believe, the heart of who we are, and the heart of our witness.

It is unfortunate that with a majority Christian population in the United States, there are no classical Christian virtues on the list of New Year’s Resolutions.  Perhaps we Christians should use the occasion of the New Year to resolve to focus on a virtue.   With a little prayer, the Lord would surely reveal one that he would have us pursue.  Here are some that figure prominently in the Bible, but there are many, many more.
1.  Forgiveness
2.  Humility
3.  Compassion
4.  Kindness
5.  Graciousness
6.  Patience
7.  Encouragement
8.  Service
9.  Generosity
10.  Purity

The truth is that we don’t just stumble into virtue the way it seems we sometimes stumble into a vice.  We are informed by Scripture that Christian virtues are something that have to be thought out and put into practice.  Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (James 1:22)  NT Wright explains it this way, “The difference between vices and virtues is this:  Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice.  But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.”  This means that we follow the way of Jesus by practicing the kind of life he commands – the biblical record is unequivocal on this point.

And so, why not start today by making a firm resolve to pursue a Christian virtue?  What better occasion than New Year’s Day to refocus one’s efforts on living the kind of life envisioned by God?  There are at least two objections to embracing New Years Day as a time for making spiritual resolutions.  Both of these can be easily answered.

The first objection is that the pursuit of virtue is an ongoing, everyday affair for followers of Christ.  And so it is!  Indeed, Jesus tells us we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  (Matthew 6:33)  And that Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23).  Repentance is a never-ending (in this life) endeavor.  We are to be constantly turning to the ways of the Lord, and not relegating it to a once a year kind of commitment.  However, the same argument could be made for any occasion of spiritual focus.  For example, reflection upon our sin and the sacrifice of Christ is a foundational principle of our faith, but still we have no trouble placing specific emphasis on it during Lent.  Sometimes when something is to be done “all of the time” it tends to be done none of the time.  Emphasizing the practice of Christian virtues at the New Year would put a fine point on Jesus’ teaching that “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21)

The second objection is that New Years Day is a secular holiday that is not traditionally recognized by the church.  Perhaps it is time to change this.  We all know that in the 1950’s and early 1960’s Christmas underwent a hostile takeover by the forces of modern secularism.  It caught many Christians by surprise because we unwittingly participated in the takeover.  We fell into line as commercial interests joined forces with Santa Clause, and relegated Jesus to a cameo role as a manger prop and picture on a Christmas card.  Perhaps it is time for Christians to plot a friendly takeover of New Years Day by emphasizing New Years Resolutions that are based on Christian virtues.  What would the impact be if those of us with bitter hearts resolved in the New Year to truly forgive those who have hurt us?  Or those with selfish hearts resolved to serve people in need?  Or those with critical hearts resolved to guard their tongue?  The possibilities are endless.  And in doing this we would breathe new life into what it means to be transformed, what it means to be fully human, and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

Returning to the informal survey mentioned at the beginning, in which past resolutions closely matched those of the general population.  When asked about resolutions to be made in 2020, there was a significant shift in emphasis.  Although exercise, lose weight, and read more still appear, other resolutions include:  “Growing closer to father and brother,” “Regularity in dates with wife,” “Volunteer,” “Get closer to God,” “Better family leader,” and “Obedient to God.”  These seem like a pretty good start.

S