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.

Proverbs 16

“A prideful spirit goes before destruction casts its pall; an arrogant and haughty heart before a mighty fall.”  (Proverbs 16:18)

This is the sixteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 16, preceded by a brief reflection.

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Choosing wisely is one of the central themes in Proverbs.  Whether it is the words we speak, the actions we take, or the company we keep, wisdom is reflected in our choices.  And we are told in various ways that this can be a matter of life and death.  For example, in Proverbs 16 we find that wise choices can lead to success (v3), peace (v7), and life (v17). Whereas poor choices lead to discipline (v22), destruction (v18), and death (v25).

There is a lot riding on our choices.  But choosing wisely, as we all know, can be very hard at times.  And according to Proverbs, even when we think we are choosing what is right, we may be heading toward disaster.  In the NIV translation, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.”  (Proverbs 16:25)  Some have interpreted this verse to mean that bad things sometimes happen despite the best laid plans.  This is the view of Tim Keller who writes about verse 25, “Sometimes … you can follow the ways of wisdom and make your plans as well as can be and things can still go terribly wrong.  The wise know that sometimes all paths run ill.”  (God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, page 226)  This interpretation is a helpful corrective of a flawed theology that says that if something bad happens to me, I must have done something wrong.  Indeed, Jesus himself refuted such an automatic nexus when he said that a man was not blind because he had sinned, but so that “the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:3)

However, I believe that most of us understand Proverbs 16:25 is referring to following a way that is wrong even though initially it appears to be right.  Just because our heart feels our way is correct, does not make it so.  For as the prophet tells us “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  (Jeremiah 17:9)  Relying on our feelings and what comes naturally to us can lead to disaster.  There can be no doubt that our feelings are not an infallible indicator that we are on the right path.  As Christians we know that we are to follow God’s way and not our own.

Most of us don’t start out to select a wrong path.  Indeed, our natural tendency is to choose a path that “feels right.”  But feeling right is not the same as being right.  So how can we know if the way we are choosing is going to lead to death?

One answer is found elsewhere in this chapter, “A prideful spirit goes before destruction casts its pall; an arrogant and haughty heart before a mighty fall.”  (Proverbs 16:18), or in the NIV translation, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”  The Hebrew word for destruction is transliterated sheber, which like the word “death” in verse 25, has a figurative meaning of ruin.  Thus, while verse 25 tells us that certain ways lead to ruin, verse 16 identifies a specific way, which is pride.

Proverbs 16:18 may be the most quoted verse from Proverbs, at least in its common paraphrase, “pride goeth before a fall.”  I always understood this to mean that when we start to brag about something, that failure is almost certain to follow.  In other words, bragging is a way to jinx oneself.  I’ll leave the validation or refutation of this to your own empirical experience.  But one thing that’s for certain – pride in the Bible is much deeper than simply bragging about things.  Biblical pride is the sin that caused Satan to fall, and the sin that CS Lewis referred to as the Great Sin.  Throughout the Bible, pride is seen as something God hates.  For example, in the present chapter, we read, “The Lord detests the arrogant and all whose hearts are proud.”  (Proverbs 16:5a)

As Lewis describes pride in Mere Christianity, “there is no fault that we are more unconscious of in ourselves.”  And it is because of its hiddenness that pride causes so many difficulties in our lives.  One of the primary ways that pride manifests itself is by the excessive emphasis we attach to ourselves and the events around us.  It is a view of the world that frames events from their impact on us and exaggerates their significance – all with predictable consequences.

Henri Nouwen refers to this as eternalization.  To eternalize something is to give it undue weight and importance.  In other words, we invest things with eternal significance by exaggerating their significance in relationship to ourselves.  He writes of the impact of eternalizing events.  “Small, seemingly innocent events keep telling us how easily we eternalize ourselves and our world.  It takes only a hostile word to make us feel sad and lonely.  It takes only a rejecting gesture to plunge us into self-complaint.  It takes only a substantial failure in our work to lead us into a self-destructive depression. … Aren’t the many feelings of sadness, heaviness of heart and even dark despair, often intimately connected with the exaggerated seriousness with which we have clothed the people we know, the ideas to which we are exposed and the events we are part of?  This lack of distance, which excludes the humor in life, can create a suffocating depression which prevents us from lifting our heads above the horizon of our own limited existence.”  (Reaching Out, pages 116-117)

I believe that most of us understand how pride puts enmity between us and God, because over and over we read that God detests the arrogant and proud.  It is also self-evident that pride destroys relationships, because pride is inherently competitive, which means that it seeks to prevail over the other, and when it loses, it refuses to forgive.  But perhaps less obvious is how pride damages our own souls, because it feels only “natural” for us to see the world through our own wants and needs.  But here is the great paradox of pride – the more we seek to protect ourselves, the more we suffer.  When we expect the world to revolve around us, inevitably we end up disappointed and discouraged, which leads to anger, unforgiveness, and depression.  Doomed to forever live in a state of unsatisfied demands, our souls are gradually crushed.

It is a great step forward when we simply recognize the extent of pride in our lives, and when we resolve to make choices consistent with humility.  This is not simple or without its own pain.  Indeed, Jesus refers to it this way:  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:24)  But Jesus also said that, “those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Matthew 23:12).  And that, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3)

S

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1  While people make elaborate plans,
conceived within the heart;
The proper answers come from God,
through words that tongues impart.

2  While people think their ways are right –
correct in all they do;
Their spirit will be weighed by God,
their motives he’ll review.

3  Commit your efforts to the Lord,
entrust him with each deed;
Then he’ll establish all your plans,
ensuring they succeed.

4  The Lord has worked out everything,
to reach its proper end;
He’s even planned a day of woe,
the wicked can’t transcend.

5  The Lord detests the arrogant,
and all whose hearts are proud;
So be assured that punishment,
will fall upon that crowd.

6  Iniquities and guilt are purged,
through love and faithfulness;
While fearing God provides the way,
to turn from evilness.

7  When ways that people choose to live,
are pleasing to the Lord;
He quiets those who are their foes,
so peace will be assured.

8  Much better to have little wealth,
and live a righteous life;
Than having money garnered through,
injustices and strife.

9  While people plan within their hearts,
the course to guide their way;
The Lord establishes their steps –
the path they go each day.

10  While kings can speak like oracles,
with words that are divine;
Their mouths must not betray what’s right,
with justice on the line.

11  The Lord wants honest balances,
correct and faultless scales;
For he’s concerned with every weight,
and trivial details.

12  A righteous king won’t tolerate,
what’s evil in his sight;
Because a throne is founded on,
what’s virtuous and right.

13  A righteous king takes pleasure in,
both honest and sincere;
He values those who speak what’s right,
and to the truth adhere.

14  The anger of a king predicts,
that death will have its day;
The wise will mollify the king,
to turn his wrath away.

15  A king whose countenance is bright,
brings life to his domain;
His favor’s like a welcome cloud,
that brings the springtime rain.

16  Now wisdom that’s obtained is worth,
much more than any gold;
While insight gained surpasses all,
the silver you can hold.

17  The highway of the righteous turns,
from evilness and strife;
For everyone who guards their way,
preserves and keeps their life.

18  A prideful spirit goes before,
destruction casts its pall;
An arrogant and haughty heart,
before a mighty fall.

19  Far better being poor in heart,
with those whose hopes are quelled;
Than sharing in ill-gotten gains,
with those whose hearts are swelled.

20  The ones who listen when they’re taught,
discover what is best;
And those who put their trust in God,
will find that they are blessed.

21  The wise in heart are known to be,
discerners of what’s right;
Their gracious lips help others learn,
and in their words delight.

22  Insight is like a spring of life,
for those who mark its way;
But folly leads to discipline,
for fools who disobey.

23  The hearts of those whose ways are wise,
give guidance for their speech;
And make their words persuasive when,
they’re offered up to teach.

24  Kind words are like a honeycomb,
that helps to make one whole;
A healing touch to weary bones,
and sweetness to the soul.

25  There is a way that seems correct –
a way perceived as true;
But it deceives, and in the end,
it’s death it’s leading to.

26  The appetite of laborers,
incentivizes work;
For it’s their hunger driving them,
so that they do not shirk.

27  Ungodly people make their schemes,
with evil as its name;
The slander on their lips is like,
an all-consuming flame.

28  An evil person stirs up strife,
and generates a fray;
A gossip separates two friends,
as unity gives way.

29  The wicked stir their neighbors up,
enticing them to wrath;
They show a way that is not good,
then lead them down that path.

30  Whoever winks their eyes is one,
who plans dishonest things;
Whoever tightens up their lips,
has evil in the wings.

31  Gray hair can be a splendid thing –
a crown of dignity;
When gained along the narrow way,
of living righteously.

32  Far better being patient than,
a fighter of renown;
And better having self-control,
than capturing a town.

33  While some throw lots into a lap,
or dice upon a board;
Still all decisions that are made,
come wholly from the Lord.

 

Proverbs 15

“The best laid plans will surely fail, without a learned guide; but with advisors to assist, success will soon abide.” (Proverbs 15:22)

This is the fifteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 15, preceded by a brief reflection.

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Proverbs 15 has at least eight verses (5, 7, 10, 12, 14, 22, 31, and 32) on the importance of receiving advice and counsel.  For example, “The best laid plans will surely fail, without a learned guide; but with advisors to assist, success will soon abide.”  (Proverbs 15:22)  and “Correction mockers always hate, chastisement they despise; they will not seek or ask advice, from anyone who’s wise.”  (Proverbs 15:12)  Solomon no doubt understood that life is too complicated to be distilled into a finite number of sayings, and that we need to seek the wisdom of others.  To rely solely on our own thoughts and ideas is a formula for disaster.  I like the way the fourth century Christian monk Dorotheus of Gaza put it, “Nothing is more harmful than self-direction, nothing more fatal … I never allowed myself to follow my thought without asking advice.”

But where do we turn for advice, particularly in spiritual matters?  For some it is a discerning spouse or a close friend.  For a few it is a pastor, counselor, or spiritual advisor.  But no one is a font of all wisdom, nor do all of us have access to someone who can help.  For us Christians, the Bible is the most reliable source of spiritual wisdom.  However, even the most devout among us needs help at times in applying biblical principles to everyday life.  This is why the Bible tells us to honor those who teach it, and why Solomon tells us to listen to other people who are wise.  We see an example of this in the book of Acts where Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch who is reading from the book of Isaiah.  “‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked.  ‘How can I,’ the eunuch said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’  So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”  (Acts 8:30-31)

The most available source of counsel and advice is found in books.  It seems strange to mention books as a source of spiritual counsel given the wealth of wisdom they contain.  But there are many people who have drifted away from reading as a source of wisdom.  This is more than anecdotal as a 2017 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found a 15-year decline in leisure reading among Americans from 30% to 20%.  This is stunning!  On average, only one in five Americans is reading in their leisure time.  It was also noted in the survey that we are also watching TV roughly ten times more than we are reading.

It is not that reading is inherently more valuable than listening to another person.  I have received excellent spiritual direction by hearing sermons and talking to friends.  Nor are books inherently more reliable, because there are some books that are filled with spiritual nonsense and worse.  But when we discover a writer with spiritual depth, we can gain insights into our souls that may otherwise remain hidden.  When we read, we set our own pace.  If we are distracted, we can reread a passage.  If we question what we read, we can consult other sources.  If we are moved by what we read, we can pause and ponder.

I write as one for whom books have been my primary source of spiritual guidance.  Authors such as Dallas Willard, Judith Hougen, Richard Foster, Catherine Marshall, NT Wright, Kathleen Norris, Ronald Rolheiser, Henri Nouwen, and many others have been my teachers and advisors.  Like Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch, they have explained Scriptures to me.  In this, they have given me a framework in which to both understand the Christian life, as well as practical steps to live it out.  They have helped reveal my sinfulness and hidden faults; encouraged me to serve others; and shown me how to pursue a life of faith.

As helpful as reading good books can be, we will always need others in our lives to encourage us, teach us, and sometimes to correct us.  The choice is not between reading or listening to others – both are essential.  Still, most of us are the poorer when we avoid reading good books.  The breadth and depth of wisdom that is available from the best spiritual writers simply cannot be matched by listening to a sermon or casual interactions with others.  But regardless of how we are receiving advice and counsel, we must constantly examine how it is affecting our spiritual life.  Are we learning about our weaknesses and sins?  Are we becoming more compassionate and loving towards others?  And are we growing in our love for God?

S

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1  A gentle answer on the tongue,
turns wrath and strife away;
But strident words stir anger up,
and instigate a fray.

2  The wise have knowledge on their tongues,
commending what they tout;
But fools just open up their mouths,
and folly gushes out.

3  The Lord is looking all around,
He watches every place;
He sees the wicked and the good,
there’s none he does not trace.

4  A soothing tongue’s a tree of life,
a healing balm replete;
A lying tongue will always leave,
the spirit crushed and beat.

5  A fool rejects a parent’s word,
and spurns their discipline;
The prudent heed what they are told,
when chastised for their sin.

6  The righteous have great treasure in,
a house that is secure;
The wicked find that what they earn,
brings trouble to endure.

7  The wise who know and understand,
have knowledge to impart;
But fools are just the opposite,
with folly in their heart.

8  God hates it when the wicked come,
to give their sacrifice;
But when the righteous offer prayers,
for him they do suffice.

9  The Lord detests the wicked for,
the ways that they transgress;
But loves the good and upright for,
pursuing righteousness.

10  Stern discipline awaits the one,
whose pathway goes awry;
And one who hates to be reproved,
assuredly will die.

11  If death and desolation lie,
in full view of the Lord;
Then how much more does he discern,
what every heart has stored.

12  Correction mockers always hate,
chastisement they despise;
They will not seek or ask advice,
from anyone who’s wise.

13  A happy and contented heart,
imbues a face with cheer;
But sorrow deep within the heart,
will make a spirit drear.

14  The heart of one who understands,
seeks knowledge to possess;
The mouth of one who is a fool,
just feeds on foolishness.

15  For those afflicted, days are bad,
their hardship can’t be ceased;
But happy cheerful hearts are like,
a never-ending feast.

16  Far better having not so much,
and fear the Lord most High;
Than living in prosperity,
with troubles drawing nigh.

17  Far better eating only herbs,
when served with loving care;
Than eating rich and fatty meat,
with hatred and despair.

18  An angry person filled with rage,
is sure to cause a fight;
But one who’s slow to show their wrath,
will calmly make things right.

19  The lazy face a thorny path,
with trouble as their fate;
The upright walk a level way –
a highway that is straight.

20  Wise children make their fathers glad,
and thankful they were born;
The foolish treat their mothers bad,
through disrespect and scorn.

21  To those who have no commonsense,
there’s joy in foolishness;
But those with wisdom walk a path,
from which they won’t digress.

22  The best laid plans will surely fail,
without a learned guide;
But with advisors to assist,
success will soon abide.

23  A person finds abiding joy,
to give an apt reply;
For timely words are very good,
as no one can deny.

24  The prudent find the path of life,
leads upward and away;
It saves them from the world below,
of darkness and decay.

25  The Lord destroys the dwelling place,
of everyone who’s vain;
But he protects the widow’s land,
securing her domain.

26  The Lord detests the thoughts of all,
the wicked and the vile;
But he delights in every word,
that’s gracious and worthwhile.

27  The greedy seeking unjust gain,
bring trouble on their tribe;
But they will surely live and breathe,
who do not take a bribe.

28  The righteous heart gives careful thought,
before its answer’s heard;
The wicked have a mouth that pours,
out evil with each word.

29  The Lord is far away from those,
pursuing wickedness;
But hears the prayers of those who walk,
the way of righteousness.

30  A cheerful look that lights the eyes,
brings joy to fill the soul;
As well, good news restores the bones,
to make the body whole.

31  The one who listens when rebuked,
to words that offer life;
Will be at home among the wise,
with knowledge that is rife.

32  The one ignoring discipline,
will tear their soul apart;
But one who heeds correction gains,
an understanding heart.

33  To fear the Lord brings discipline,
with wisdom as its aim;
While being humble comes before,
the honor of one’s name.

Proverbs 14

The prudent show their wisdom when they contemplate their ways”  (Proverbs 14:8a)

This is the fourteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 14, preceded by a brief reflection.

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Christmas morning was a wild scene when I was a child.  As soon as my parents appeared, my two brothers and I tore into piles of neatly wrapped gifts.  We did not take turns, and pausing only to confirm our name on a present, we raced through the gifts like a murder of crows feasting on carrion.  I can’t remember giving much thought as to who the giver was (Mom & Dad, grandparent, Santa), and barely was one gift opened that it was tossed aside and another attacked.  Quickly the stacks of packages were converted into a sea of empty boxes, bows, and wrapping paper.  I have a memory of board games, electric trains, cap pistols, and coonskin hats.  But more than the presents, what I remember most is unbounded energy and excitement marked by shouts and squeals of delight.

Now you might be tempted to dismiss my recollection as just that – a faded memory that has become embellished with each telling.  But in this you would be wrong because there are tapes!  My dad, you see, was an audiophile and sort of amateur archivist who selectively recorded people and events.  He owned a good quality reel-to-reel tape recorder, which probably means nothing for those of you who are under 50.  Reel-to-reel was a technology that preceded eight-track recorders and cassettes by a couple of decades.  Rather than the recording tape being self-contained within a single cassette, it moved between two separate reels.  Suffice it to say, the tape recorder was a rather large affair weighing perhaps fifteen pounds or so and about the size of a small suitcase.  These days with smart phones, it is a simple matter to secretly record a conversation or event, but stealth was not so simple in the days of reel-to-reel.

The first time my dad recorded us on a Christmas morning, we were more or less oblivious to the fact that we were being taped.  But we boys caught on fast, and thereafter carefully searched when we suspected he was going to record us.  This was the situation one Christmas, where we conducted a sweep of the room before diving into our presents.  Despite our efforts, he caught us on tape again.  For unbeknownst to us, he had set up the tape recorder in the basement underneath the living room where we opened presents.  Drilling a hole in the floor, he had threaded the wire so that the microphone could be in the living room while the recorder was in the basement.  And where did he put the microphone, which was about the size of a deck of cards?  Why, in the box of tissues next to his chair of course!

When my dad played this recording for me many years later, what I described above is pretty accurate.  Lots of ripping of paper against a chorus of “oh boy, oh boy’s.”  It wasn’t altogether unpleasant to listen to, but even with the passing of so much time, I felt a bit silly to hear it played back.  Still, we were only little kids and the unrestrained excitement and joy seems very natural to the season.

For most other times in my life I am thankful that what I have said has not been recorded.  Too often I have spoken out of anger, frustration, or just plain meanness.  I would no doubt be overwhelmed if the full extent were made known.  What a grace that no one can play my words back to me.

But if the idea of having my words recorded is not bad enough, how much worse would it be if someone had recorded my thoughtsUnbearable shame is what comes to my mind.  For the truth is that too often I choose thoughts of anger over forgiveness, pride over humility, defensiveness over teachability, lust over purity, resentment over joy, criticism over understanding, and selfishness over generosity.  These thoughts have hurt others as they have worked themselves out in my words and emotions.

We are spiritually mature to the extent of our thoughts.  In the words of Solomon in Proverbs 14, The prudent show their wisdom when, they contemplate their ways.”  (Proverbs 14:8a)  This idea of contemplating or giving thought to our ways is repeated in a later verse.  The prudent think about their steps, and where they’re bound to lead.”  (Proverbs 14:15b)  In other words, thoughts matter.  Indeed, our thought life is a hinge about which our spiritual life pivots.

This truth is expressed in different ways in Scripture.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”  (2 Corinthians 10:5)  And to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  (Romans 12:2)  It’s not just that our thoughts are at the root of our actions and emotions, but according to Jesus, unholy thoughts are morally equivalent to their corresponding action.  “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. … I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  (Matthew 5:22, 28)

I am grateful that there is no technology that can secretly record my thoughts the way my dad recorded my words on a Christmas morning long ago.  But God of course transcends physical technology and is always monitoring our thoughts.  This is what it means for God to be omniscient, and what King David beautifully describes.

– O Lord, You have examined me, discerning what’s inside;
You know my every thought and deed, there’s nothing I can hide.
– You know when I am sitting down, You know when I arise;
You know my thinking from afar, whatever I devise.
– You know when I am going out, You know when I’m at rest;
You know the places I have been, You know my worst and best.
– Before a word is on my tongue, You know what I will say;
You know what I am thinking, Lord, the thoughts that I’ll convey.
– You’re all around on every side, behind me and before;
You lay Your hand upon my head so I can rest secure.
(Psalm 139:1-5)

What’s on your mind?

S

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1  Wisdom builds her dwelling house,
where solidly it stands;
But Folly strikes and tears hers down,
by means of her own hands.

2  The one who fears the Lord walks straight,
and upright every day;
But one who hates him is perverse,
and crooked in their way.

3  The foolish utter prideful words,
that hurt them in the end;
The wise however speak with lips,
that guard them like a friend.

4  Where there’s no oxen for the plow,
the manger will be bare;
But where their strength is utilized,
abundance will be there.

5  An honest witness tells the truth,
when giving a reply;
But one who falsely testifies,
tells nothing but a lie.

6  A mocker seeking wisdom tries,
but vainly casts around;
The wise find knowledge comes with ease,
as quickly it is found.

7  It’s wise to stay away from fools,
avoiding where they live;
For there’s no knowledge they can share,
no wisdom they can give.

8  The prudent show their wisdom when,
they contemplate their ways;
But fools reveal their folly when,
deception fills their days.

9  The foolish mock at all attempts,
to offer recompense;
The righteous find acceptance by,
redressing their offense.

10  The heart knows its own bitterness –
its darkness and its light;
There’s no one who can know its pain,
or share in its delight.

11  The vile will see their house destroyed –
demolished where it stood;
The righteous flourish in a tent,
for doing what is good.

12  There is a way that seems correct –
a way perceived as true;
But it deceives and in the end,
it’s death it’s leading to.

13  Although a heart may laugh and shout,
inside it still may break;
And even though rejoicing ends,
it still can grieve and ache.

14  The faithless ones will be repaid,
for their ungodly ways;
The righteous will be satisfied,
with how they’ve lived their days.

15  The foolish trust in everything,
And to such things accede;
The prudent think about their steps,
and where they’re bound to lead.

16  The wise are cautious and aware,
and turn from evilness;
But fools show overconfidence,
and reckless carelessness.

17  The foolish and quick-tempered act,
in ways that are unwise;
While those devising evil schemes,
are hated and despised.

18  The foolish get what they deserve,
with folly their return;
The prudent wear a noble crown,
of knowledge to discern.

19  The wicked bow before the good,
when they comes into sight;
Indeed they bow before the gates,
of those whose ways are right.

20  The poor are shunned by neighbors who,
on once they could depend;
The rich although know quite a few,
who love to call them friend.

21  To hate a neighbor is a sin –
an act of wickedness;
But one who’s kind to those in need,
is filled with happiness.

22  Those plotting vile and evil acts,
will surely go astray;
But those whose plans are good find love,
and faithfulness each day.

23  In working hard there’s wealth and gain –
a profit one can see;
But merely talking makes one poor,
and leads to poverty.

24  The crowning glory of the wise,
is wealth without surcease;
The foolishness of fools just makes,
their foolishness increase.

25  A truthful witness saves a life,
when called to testify;
But one who speaks deceitfully,
condemns it by a lie.

26  Whoever trusts and fears the Lord,
will have security;
And for the children in their home,
a refuge it will be.

27  To fear the Lord is like a spring,
that flows with life untold;
It turns one from the snares of death,
and its determined hold.

28  A king who governs multitudes,
is honored by his reign;
But princes with no one to rule,
know ruin and disdain.

29  The one who’s slow to anger has,
their wisdom on display;
But one who’s temper quickly shows,
displays their foolish way.

30  A tranquil heart gives life and health,
to make a body sound;
But coveting is cancerous,
so rotten bones abound.

31  The one who persecutes the poor,
shows God contempt and shame;
But being kind to those in need,
brings honor to his name.

32  The wicked will be overthrown,
by their iniquity;
The righteous feel secure and safe,
in their integrity.

33  Those having understanding live,
with Wisdom in their heart;
But she does not reside with fools –
with them she has no part.

34  Now righteousness will surely lift,
a nation in its place;
But sin condemns societies,
to fall into disgrace.

35  A wise and honest servant has,
the favor of a king;
But one who causes shame will feel,
the fury of his sting.

Proverbs 13

“A hope deferred will make the heart feel sick and full of grief; But filled it is a tree of life, alive with fruit and leaf.”  (Proverbs 13:12)

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter.  The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 13, preceded by a brief reflection.

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2020 has been a tough year.  The global pandemic has left many of us shaken and fearful for our health and those we love.  More than anything, we desire an end to the scourge and a recovery from the resulting economic distress and social isolation.  The civil and political unrest has added to our anxiety, and we desperately hope for relational healing from the deep divisions within our country.  The words of Solomon in Proverbs 13 seem to capture the moment, “A hope deferred will make the heart feel sick and full of grief; But filled it is a tree of life, alive with fruit and leaf.”  (Proverbs 13:12)  No doubt when a cure is found for Covid, and divisions within the country begin to heal, we will emerge from our grief and heartsickness and begin to feel alive once again.  Indeed, in a later verse in Proverbs 13, we read, “Those with their longings satisfied, know sweetness of the soul.”  (Proverbs 13:19a)

But is this what it is going to take for us to be a tree of life?  Will it only be when our hopes and longings are satisfied that we will feel alive with sweetness in our soul?  Is it only when external conditions change that we will know internal peace?  Is it only when we are protected by a vaccine and conflicts resolved that we will experience contentment?

Proverbs 13 has essentially two types of verses.  The majority are those which embody a moral imperative.  For example,“A child who’s wise will want to heed its parent’s clear command; A mocker though does not respond to words of reprimand.”  (Proverbs 13:1)  This is a pattern we find throughout Proverbs – a comparison and contrast between the righteous and the wicked, the wise and the foolish, the diligent and the lazy, etc.  In other words, these carry the weight of ethical norms – we ought to pursue a life of righteousness, wisdom, diligence, etc.

However, there are also a handful of verses, such as verse 13, that do not involve right and wrong per se, but rather are universal truths about the human condition.  “A hope deferred will make the heart feel sick and full of grief; But filled it is a tree of life alive with fruit and leaf.”  (Proverbs 13:12)  This is something we have all experienced – being heartsick when our hopes go unfulfilled and being overjoyed when they are filled.  If we were to read this as a moral imperative, then I suppose the way forward is to reduce the things we hope for.  In other words, we should put to death those things that we desire.  But while overcoming one’s desires or “detachment” is the goal of many Eastern religions, it is decidedly not part of Scripture or a Christian worldview.

The point being, Proverbs 13:12 is not the final word on our desires and hopes, but must be read in light of the rest of Scripture.  Otherwise, our happiness and fruitfulness would be dependent upon having our desires met.  The Bible provides a lot of guidance on overcoming worry.  The foundational way is stated by Jesus, Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”  (Matthew 6:33-34)

As we seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness in increasing measure, God’s provision enables us to live more and more in the present moment.  In the immediately preceding verses in Matthew 6, Jesus gives practical guidance on overcoming worry and anxiety by telling us to contemplate God’s care for “the birds of the air” and “flowers of the field.”  Mostly we do this in our mind’s eye, and rarely in actual fact.  It seems to me that birds and flowers are a metonymy for nature.  And that nature is a way God provides for soothing our fears.  Let me give three examples.

My wife Pat loves to “go birding.”  Particularly during the Spring migration, she desires nothing more than to spend a few hours of a morning with binoculars in hand studying birds that she finds in bushes, trees and the air.  Along with her “birding buddy” Jo Anne, she soaks in the diverse beauty of the “birds of the air.”  From the spectacular colors of indigo buntings and goldfinches to the lyrical songs of Baltimore orioles and wood thrushes, it is all a healing salve to the soul.  Excited and energized when she returns home, the renewed sense of wholeness in her spirit is palpable.

My friends Marly and her husband Bill have taken to exploring our local parks since Covid disrupted their normal activities.  This spring and summer, they regularly hiked trails that took them through wood, field, and fen.  Marly recently commented on how her love for being outside in nature has grown.  In this, she has come to appreciate the love for the out-of-doors of her long-departed father, who worked many years for the National Park Service.  A small thing perhaps, but contemplating nature is a restorative to what confuses, confounds, and worries us in our daily lives.

I too spend a lot of time outside, because one of my tasks is to walk our dog.  After years of running daily for exercise where I focused only on my footing and stopwatch, I have a slower pace in my wanderings these days.  As I go, I find my gaze drawn to the beauty of the heavens and their seemingly infinite variation.  I like skies of grey, I like skies of blue, but I really like skies with clouds.  Daisy doesn’t mind when I pause to look up.  She sniffs the ground while I follow the patterns and shapes in the clouds.  It helps me put things in perspective as I consider that God’s firmament has been on display since the dawn of time and will be to the end.  Invariably, I return home refreshed and at peace.

Being outside in nature provides temporal relief from our worries.  Whether spying on migrating birds, hiking a woodland trail, or simply watching the clouds – it is almost impossible to ponder these sights while worrying at the same time.  But Jesus’ words suggest that there is a deeper freedom from our worries we can experience.  For if God provides for the birds of the air and adorns the flowers of the field, how much more will he care for us.  In essence, Jesus tells us that if we focus on the wonders of today we don’t have to wait until our hopes are fulfilled to live as “a tree of life, alive with fruit and leaf.”

S

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1  A child who’s wise will want to heed,
its parent’s clear command;
A mocker though does not respond,
to words of reprimand.

2  Those speaking right and fruitful words,
will surely taste good things;
The treacherous seek violence,
and eat the hate it brings.

3  Those placing guards upon their lips,
will keep their lives secure;
Those rashly speaking careless words,
won’t flourish or endure.

4  The sluggard’s wants are never filled,
but always are denied;
The diligent find all their wants,
are fully satisfied.

5  The righteous hate whatever’s false,
no lies do they embrace;
The wicked bring upon themselves,
dishonor and disgrace.

6  The righteous find their way secured,
by their integrity;
The wicked though are overthrown,
by their iniquity.

7  One person acts like they are rich,
but yet is very poor;
Another acts like one in want,
while having so much more.

8  The rich must pay a ransom when,
their lives are on the line;
The poor don’t even hear a threat –
such problems they don’t find.

9  The righteous are a joyful flame –
a bright and shiny light;
The wicked are fading lamp,
that’s snuffed out in the night.

10  The arrogant are insolent,
creating strife and fear;
The wise will listen to advice,
accepting what they hear.

11  Those gaining wealth dishonestly,
will find it slips away;
But those who earn it bit by bit,
will watch it grow each day.

12  A hope deferred will make the heart,
feel sick and full of grief;
But filled it is a tree of life,
alive with fruit and leaf.

13  Those scorning wise, instructive words,
will surely meet their fate;
But those who keep commands will know,
rewards that won’t abate.

14  The wise have teaching that provides,
a font of life for all;
It turns one from the snares of death,
so it will not befall.

15  Those showing their good judgment will,
win favor like a friend;
But those who act unfaithfully,
will surely meet their end.

16  The prudent and self-disciplined,
show knowledge and good sense.
But fools expose their ignorance,
with folly and pretense.

17  A wicked messenger will fall,
into adversity;
A faithful courier with bring,
a healing remedy.

18  Those disregarding discipline,
have poverty and shame;
But those who heed admonishment,
find honor and acclaim.

19  Those with their longings satisfied,
know sweetness of the soul;
But fools can’t turn from wickedness,
in part or in the whole.

20  Those walking with the wise become,
as wise as they are too;
But those who spend their time with fools,
are harmed by what they do.

21  A sinner lives a life pursued,
by trouble and distress;
The righteous are rewarded with,
good blessings and success.

22  Good people leave their money for,
their grandchildren to keep;
But sinners simply store up wealth,
that righteous people reap.

23  The poor could glean sufficient food,
from even fallow fields;
Injustice sweeps it all away,
destroying what it yields.

24  To spare the rod of discipline,
means hatred for a child;
But parents who correct with care,
have love that’s not defiled.

25  The righteous eat abundantly,
until they’re satisfied;
The wicked suffer hunger pangs,
that are not mollified.