Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Relational Wisdom

In this study of Proverbs, I have found myself reading through the entire book weekly as I seek the principles for each message in this series.  The result has been a bit messy, given the circumstances of life that have accompanied the last two weeks of sermon prep.  Because the principles are so important, and this last Sunday was SO messy, I'd like to rephrase last weeks study of proverbs here.  Proverbs has a lot to say about relationships of practically every kind (parents, spouses, neighbors, enemies, even animals). The key to real relationship is the gospel, and that came through in the messy sermon.  You can listen to it here.  Rather than discuss everything it has to say on relationship, here are what I determined to be the first two principles Proverbs asserts about wise relationships:

1. The Fear of the LORD is the foundation for wise and healthy relationships.  Proverbs 29:25 says this: "The fear of others lays a snare, but one who trusts in the LORD is secure."  It is very normal for us to fear one another rather than the LORD.  But you will never be able to be who God has made you to be, nor will you be able to love the people in your life well, if you fear them - or if you fear losing them.  It is no mistake that the first practical advice given after the summary statement in 1:7 ("The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge") is about who we choose as companions.  Which leads me to principle #2:

2. Be intentional about when and by whom you are impressed.  By "impressed" I mean formed, changed, and developed as a person.  Proverbs is written to young, impressionable men (but, contains essential principles for the rest of you too), and urges them to choose their friends wisely.  13:20 summarizes this oft-repeated principle of the book well: "Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm."  In other words, generally speaking, the people you spend time with will shape you.  Most of us become a reflection of our community.  Which is why Hebrews 10 is right on when it urges Christians not to "give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing."

On that second point, it's important to note that Biblical maturity is accurately defined by contrast in Ephesians 4:14: "We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming."  In other words, we are all expected to come to the point where we can be around people who are "simple," "immature," or "foolish," for eventually we will be like the speakers of the Proverbs, calling out to the simple to come spend time with us.  That is called discipleship, and is the marching-order for every believer: mature to the point where you can be around different ideas and lifestyles without being swayed.  BUT, be realistic: if you can't be around certain destructive behavior without participating, you need to avoid it.  

That principle brings me to my last point of clarification.  Proverbs is more overt about the treatment and abuse of alcohol than any book in the Bible.  If you listen to the sermon (or if you were there), you'll note that there was a long silence while I shuffled my VERY disorganized notes, looking for the passage that is so direct about alcohol (it was a bad preparation week: I apologize!).  Alcohol becomes, for Proverbs, an illustration (along with theft, adultery, and a few others) of what happens when we fellowship with fools.

Take a look at Proverbs 23:29-24:2.  This is not saying drinking alcohol is a sin - but it is certainly saying that maturity must be established before we can rightly engage with alcohol.  This is, however, the most overt discussion of the abuse of alcohol I've seen in the Bible, so it's worth it for beer and wine loving evangelicals like many of us to read this very honestly.  One of alcohol's most common effects is bumping us a few rungs backwards on the maturity ladder, so we become more and more "swayed by winds of doctrine" the more we drink.  The reality is, many of us (myself included) should be much more careful about when and how much, if ever, we consume alcohol.  Lord, have mercy!

There's so much more in the Proverbs about relationship, and in the weeks to come, we'll investigate it more and more.... hopefully with a little bit of structure and clarity, from here on out!  I welcome your prayers.   And your comments.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Canonical Wonder

Of all the things Proverbs contains, one very notable ingredient is its optimism.  Historically, this makes sense.  Most of the Proverbs were written or had their origin (if they were tweaked) during the easiest era in all of Israel's history: the reign of Solomon.  The kingdom was huge, the king was rich (some people theorize that he was the richest human alive), and the battles were few and far between.  Foreign relations were smooth.  Life was good.

And so, in a season like that, it's no big surprise that Proverbs begins to sound like the "Israelite Dream."  Fear the LORD, get around the right people, work hard, plan ahead, have the right attitude, stay away from the wife of another, don't cheat, don't lie, don't talk too much, be kind... and life will go really well for you. Proverbs seems to promise riches, success, long life, and happy relationships to those people.

Last week, in the sermon, I described the reality we must face that Proverbs are observations that are dependent upon a specific set of circumstances.  You can hear that message here. The phrase I will use throughout the study to describe that situation is that these things are true "all things being equal" (a phrase I stole from a Tremper Longman III lecture on Ecclesiastes).

Speaking of Ecclesiastes, it's worth taking a minute and comparing the wisdom of that Teacher to the wisdom of Proverbs.  After that, swing by another major chunk of Israelite wisdom: Job.  If you line the three books up with one another, the game "which of these is not like the other?" is pretty darn easy.  Ecclesiastes and Job attempt to understand the world God created when there seems to be no justified reason for the very difficult circumstances of life.  And then there's Lamentations, which is literally a lament for the way things have gone so poorly for Israel.  When you're done with those, take a look at the Psalms, and you discover the wisdom of all three mixed together.

It seems the "Israelite dream" came crashing down.  For those of us mining these books in search of divine Principles, we might become a bit frustrated.  Allow me to invite you to take it all in as a gift from God, and an invitation to view justice, wickedness, joy, pain, triumph, and defeat from a heavenly perspective.  The Bible is no one-dimensional manual for how to be happy.  Instead, it faces the realities of life in a fallen world head on.  I am amazed at the complexity and the balance that emerges.  One of the greatest keys to reading Proverbs (and the rest of the Bible) rightly is this: read them in light of eternity.  The rewards and pleasures promised to the righteous will be given out perfectly.  Wisdom begins when we fear the LORD - in other words, when we glimpse at the infinite nature of the Creator of the universe, and shudder at the fact that we survived given our limited perspective. Consider the Bible's claim about the spiritual reality of believers in light of this complexity:

"But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been saved -- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus..." (Ephesians 2:4-5, emphasis added). 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


My mind has been trained, through relentless practice, to be in neutral.  As I discussed a couple posts ago, I chose on December 28, 2010 to abstain from giving my solo time to mind numbing and purposeless activities.  This abstention from the downhill slopes that my mind has come to depend on for movement (tv shows, sports news, any computer game that is "solo," etc.) has been difficult.  I'm over one month into it, and still feel I'm in detox.  I still have to wrestle my mind into productive action, I still have to choose to be in a state of prayer, or to open any one of the many books that glimmered in my desired future when I was first inspired to this abstention.

Though it would be better if I were, I suspect I'm not alone. The capacity and ability of your mind to learn, to pray, to affect the non-physical and the physical world around you, is such that the moments of "neutral" ought to feel to us like priceless diamonds that have just slipped into the ocean.

In the words of the Flobots (and many others): "there's a war going on for your mind."  I'm not sure where they're coming from philosophically, but they are absolutely right with this observation.  All these distractions, all these things which promise rest and never deliver, they are part of a plot that is moving things constantly from order to disorder.

Here is my intention, and my invitation: abstain and engage.   What do you need to turn off or block in order to have the "bandwidth" to engage things that really matter?