Friday, December 23, 2011

Proverbs Take 2

A few weeks ago I started what I hope to be an occasional series on Proverbs. Lately Tricia and I have been talking through them over meals, during long car rides, etc, and it's been a great way to study and apply scripture together. This time I want to revisit 15:17 and show some of the thoughts we had on it, then maybe throw out another one for discussion.

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is
than a fattened ox and hatred with it. (Proverbs 15:17)

The proverb compares two extreme situations, likely meant to be families, although obviously proverbial wisdom extends far beyond that. The first family is poor - for dinner, all they can scratch together is a plate of herbs. They have a barely subsistence level lifestyle. Eating meat is a luxury they can barely imagine; they'd be overjoyed to get some fresh fruit or a loaf of bread. But they love each other, and despite crushing poverty, they have a happy, supportive home. Dad would do anything for Mom, Mom respects Dad despite his lack of wealth, and the kids are committed to serving and helping the family as much as they can.

The second family is rich beyond belief, eating the equivalent of Wagyu beef for an average dinner. A fattened calf was something so valuable, rich people reserved them for special occasions (see Luke 15), yet this family routinely downs them for occasions like "it's Wednesday!" We're talking royal-level material blessing. Problem is, they hate each other. Mom doesn't respect Dad, Dad doesn't even like Mom, and the kids wouldn't mind if their parents just died so they could get their inheritance and move on already. Dinner's considered a success if nobody even talks, because at least they're not yelling or throwing things. They're a family in name only.

These are the extremes - dirt poor with genuine love, and unthinkable wealth without so much as a shred of common courtesy. And Solomon says, given the choice between the two, it's better to choose love than wealth.

Now obviously few if any will come close to either extreme. But purt near all of us will face situations which mirror the choice. We will have to weigh decisions based on "what will this mean for me financially" and "what effect will this have on my marriage/family" - and sometimes we'll find that mo money means mo problems. When making a decision, some factors are a whole lot more important than "how much money will we make?"

OK, so having your marriage and family be a model of Biblical love is better than being rich (it should go without saying that contrary to the absurdities (I won't even dignify them by calling them 'opinions') of the Useful Idiot types (#OWS, Wallis, etc), you can be both). The follow-up question this Proverb begs is, how do you get that type of loving family? This is where thinking of specific choices can bring the wisdom to home - often in the form of a punch to the gut of my past/present idiocy. Some areas we thought of where this proverb could apply:

Dating/Spouse selection. News flash: who you marry will have a significant impact on your marriage and family life. (You can't get insight like that just anywhere, folks!) So what do you look for in a spouse - or what do you train your kids to most desire? Let me put it this way - if one of my daughters ever says anything like "Well, he makes me miserable and I don't really like him, but he's going to be a doctor so we'll at least be financially secure," she may need to stay in a stone tower until her hair grows long enough for an escape. (For further reflection, this.)

Workaholics. In many jobs, your pay will be somewhat proportional to your workload. You can provide better financially by working longer hours, bringing extra work home, etc - but at what cost? Is the extra money worth it if it means burdening your wife and neglecting the kids? Sometimes it would be foolish to take on more work - and sometimes it would be sinful neglect of duty to not work more (1 Tim 5:8).

Going from 20 to 40 hours may be a necessity, from 40 to 50 can provide tremendous financial blessing with minimal effect on the family, but from 50 to 90 can be familial suicide. This proverb warns against working so much to provide insane riches, while driving the family to hate you. Finding the right balance is a struggle that'll be all too familiar for many who read this - including the one writing it.

Contentment. Closely related to the above. Is the increase in lifestyle or net worth going to be enough to justify the effect it will have on the family? Can you be content with what you have, even as your friends or coworkers are making more and flaunting it? Anyone in his right mind would rather eat a fattened ox than salad. But what will it take to get there, and is it worth it?

Unethical/Illegal Behavior. Sometimes the quick path to wealth will be unethical or outright illegal. Guess what? If you become a shyster at work, it'll follow you home. Loan sharks and thieves don't tend to have great marriages or tremendous relationships with their kids. Know why? Because they're the type of men who can be loan sharks and thieves. Depravity doesn't start when you punch the time clock in and stay at the office when you leave.

How about a current-events example? Here in Illinois, we recently had yet another governor convicted on corruption charges. Blago wasn't content with a great salary and pension; he wanted to raise his family as if they had vastly more wealth than they did. He shook down everyone he could for the money to support the lavish lifestyle. Now how much do you think his family will care about the fancy dinners and vacations and expensive clothes and cars while he spends the next decade or more in prison? And how great must it be knowing your father is the type of guy who'd withhold funding from a children's hospital until they pay a bribe? Think that kind of character just may spill over into parenting or marriage, just a little?

Helpmate Suitable. Much of this so far has been primarily at the men, because I are one. So this is for the ladies. How do you best support your man as he tries to provide for the family? How can you best help him balance his duties at work, home, and church, without belittling or berating? Can you be the voice of contentment instead of the voice of more, more, more - especially if your current standard of living is significantly lower than daddy provided? (I will not elaborate on that for now, except to say I've seen that issue far too frequently, and there are few ways to destroy your husband faster than telling him he doesn't live up to your dad.)

So there's where I went with that proverb. Feel free to chime in more applications or expound on these some more.

And for next time, let's think through Proverbs 19:3. "When a man's folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the Lord."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Oddball Verses

Every once in a while, you encounter a paragraph in scripture where one line doesn't seem to entirely fit. Every verse is about one topic, but another verse or sentence is about something else entirely.

Or is it?

For those of us who believe that the Bible is God's Word, we must affirm that the scripture is a coherent piece, and that the seemingly oddball verse is integral to the passage. (Actually, that's just common courtesy to believe of an even slightly competent author - knowing that scripture was written by men as carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21) only solidifies it as an absolute.) The question to axe is not "what in the world is this doing where it doesn't belong?", but "how does this verse inform the meaning of the whole passage?"

An example of this is found in Romans 12:14-21. Here is the passage, minus the seemingly oddball verse 16.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep... Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Over and over again, this passage makes the same point from different angles: When people are evil to you, be good to them. Don't take revenge or do evil in return; trust God, and do good.

And what is verse 16, which doesn't seem at first to fit? "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight." A call to humility and a warning about pride.

So here is where you come in, dear reader. How does verse 16 fit with the rest of the paragraph - actually, how does it form the foundation?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Church on Christmas?

This year, Christmas falls on a Sunday, which means it's time once again for the debate about what to do with church services. Some churches will meet on Sunday as scheduled or on a modified schedule, and some others will shift everything to Saturday.

What do I think? Of course churches should meet on Christmas Sunday. Why in the world wouldn't we? Because it's a holiday - a holy day? Yes, why would we want to gather together as the body of Christ to worship God on a holy day? That would be silly.

Just so I'm clear - I don't just disagree with the opposing position. I don't even understand why it's a question in the first place. I cannot think of one solitary reason why we should move services when Christmas falls on a Sunday. In fact, in years where Christmas falls on some other day, I would love to have an extra service on Christmas morning (granted, many churches will have Christmas Eve services instead, which is nice).

So here's my request - if you have a reason why we shouldn't meet on Sunday, let me know. Particularly if you favor moving from Sunday, I would love to hear the reasoning. And then we can take those reasons and ask whether we should meet on Easter.

I do not understand. I do not comprehend. Please help. Thanks.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


You may have noticed that it's become fairly commonplace to describe "religious people" as Pharisees (if you can't think of an example, wait a week). Generally the pattern is like so. A church or pastor wants to do something different, maybe something fairly innocuous (more modern musical style), but more often pushing the boundaries or even outright blasphemous (examples far too numerous). Someone objects that it's inappropriate, in bad taste, etc. That person is derided as a Pharisee. As an added bonus, we are often then told that the church should - no, must - do these kinds of things to shock the Pharisees, because after all, Jesus went out of his way to upset them in his day.

Does that argument hold up? Is it legit to compare those with more conservative taste - even those who can get downright legalistic about it - to the Pharisees? I've got some issues with that, starting with...

1) Most often, the objector is a God-fearer. The Pharisees were not. In case you forgot, the Pharisees were the chief earthly opponents of Jesus Christ and his church. They were so evil that they hated Jesus when sinners were reconciled to God through him, and when they could no longer deny that Jesus was Messiah, they plotted to kill him and bury the evidence.

Mildred (because it's always a little old lady named Mildred, usually with a big hat) has been faithfully attending the church for 70 years, leading Sunday School classes and spending hours a week in prayer for the manifold needs of the church. She doesn't think that playing the song "Kill Your Mother, Stab a Baby, Rape a Goat" by the hot new band "Christ-Punchers" was really appropriate for opening worship at the Christmas Eve service.

Yeah, they're basically the same.

In sum, one group loves Jesus and wants to serve him the best they can (even if they might be wrong on the specifics of how). The other hated Jesus and did everything in their power to silence and kill him. Even thinking about equating the two is nauseating.

2) If anything, the objector is the weaker brother. Let's take an example where the deck's not so stacked - in this one, the objector may even be wrong. Good ole Larry's church decided recently to switch to a more modern worship style. The organ is being phased out and will soon be gone, replaced with electric instruments - guitars, keyboards, those guitars that are like double guitars, maybe even a keytar. Larry objects, and not just due to a difference of taste. He's been taught that such instruments are evil, and are not fit for Christian use.

Now, assuming you believe (as I do) that electric guitars are not necessarily evil, it's not entirely cromulent to  compare Larry to a God-hating, Christ-hating son of the devil like the Pharisees. A much more appropriate comparison is found in Romans 14.

In this passage, Paul considers the case of the weaker brother. This person has come to faith in Christ, but is not yet mature enough in his knowledge to understand the full extent of his freedom. Regarding dietary laws, some in the church understood that they were now free to eat, while some less mature ones didn't yet fully appreciate that freedom. What does Paul say to do? Deride the vegetarian as a Christ-hating Pharisee? Publicly ridicule him for being stuck in old dietary rules mode? Flaunt your freedom by eating a medium rare ribeye or a cheeseburger in front of him every chance you get? Go out of your way to tick him off?

Quite the opposite. We are to make reasonable accommodations where possible, and while working to bring the weaker brother to maturity in that area, strive to avoid harming his weaker faith. If he is in Christ, he deserves the same grace you received when you were an immature newbie (or immature-in-that-area 45-year veteran). Work to build up, not to destroy.

The situation where the objector is wrong will most often fall under this scenario. Rather than slandering him as a Pharisee (about the worst epithet conceivable) and making him the object of public scorn, we should overflow with grace and patience towards him. Even when he's wrong. Especially when he's wrong.

3) Intentionally ticking people off? To hear some talk about it, Jesus thought his main mission was to seek and savor every opportunity to stick his finger in a Pharisee's eye. Thus, they see it as their duty to intentionally aggravate the Pharisees in their midst - who are most often probably weaker brothers who need to be built up, but no worries. In fact, some will claim their boundary-pushing actions are designed primarily, if not solely, to annoy the uptight conservative old ladies in big hats. Does that really reflect what Jesus did?

Now of course, Jesus did frequently upset a lot of people. But it's highly debatable that he ever upset someone as an end in itself, or even as his primary goal. He healed on the Sabbath not to taunt the Pharisees, but because it was the Sabbath and people needed healing. He axed the Samaritan woman about her serial marriages, not looking to mock her while she went scurrying off in shame, but to cut right to the heart of her need to repent. He taught hard truths not because they were offensive, but because they were true.

Of course, the truth about God and us is always offensive. Those who are Satan's children will of course be offended by the gospel. Is it necessary, or even wise, to intentionally add offense on top of that? Let them be upset at Christ, and not upset at you for being a jerk.

So there ya go. If you've used this ridiculous argument to smear opponents, repent of it and stop.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thinking Through Proverbs, Take 1

My second-favorite book I read this year was God's Wisdom in Proverbs by Dan Phillips. Coincidentally, the best was The World-Tilting Gospel, also by Dan Phillips. Basically, you should buy several copies of each, read one and give away the others. If you get nothing else from this post, that's fine, go do that and be blessed.

For those who chose to soldier on, this is the most important thing I learned from GWiP: as long as I can remember, I've been reading Proverbs wrong. I'd always struggled to really benefit from Proverbs because I'd been reading it no differently from an epistle or history book - in large chunks, often several chapters at a time. Every time I read it, it was as part of a reading plan that focused on quantity, getting through the books in a reasonable time. I would read through the Bible in a year (generally 3-4 chapters in a day on those plans) or do the famous "this month has 31 days, read a chapter of Proverbs a day" plan.

The problem is, Proverbs is not meant to be read that way. Rather than reading a large quantity and looking for a unifying theme, following the flow of the argument, or following a narrative account, each Proverb is a standalone nugget of truth to be mined and savored. Don't blow through a whole chapter, barely pausing for a "oh, that's deep" before flying on to the next. Take one proverb, mull it over, think on it some more, imagine the scenario(s) being described (come up with a short story or parable if you can), and work it over for every ounce of truth and application you can glean from it. Talk it over with your family, friends, or Bible study, and work on it some more. You will be amazed at how much application can be made from a short 2-line saying.

Don't believe me? Let's try one together. Proverbs 15:17 - "Better a dinner of herbs where love is / than a fattened ox and hatred with it."

Think about it and post your thoughts in the comments. Some of the applications I thought of include spouse selection/what to train my daughters to value in a husband, workaholism, contentment, helpmate suitable issues, and the meaning of "provision". Let's see what you come up with in those categories, as well as others I missed.