Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reflections on Proverbs: Rights of the Poor and Needy

Open your mouth for the dumb,
for the rights of all who are left desolate.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
maintain the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9

When Israel and Judah were powerful, rich, and prosperous, the prophets were called by God to warn them of their downfall. Two main sins bothered God and the Prophets the most: worshiping idols and social injustice. Notice how these two sins violate directly the most important commandment God ever issued: Love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Worshiping idols means not loving God, and letting the poor and weak suffer and grow poorer and weaker means not loving your neighbor.

It was Israel and Judah's failure to love God and love their neighbors (the poor and helpless) that led to the destruction of the temple and the defeat of their kings. If we don't take care of each other, God cannot take care of us. He wants to, but he can't. We make our bed, and we have to lie in it. That's what free will is all about. And that's why the Temple burned.

King Lemuel, whose words are recorded in Proverbs 31, tells us to speak up for those who cannot speak and to protect and guard the rights of those who are desolate, poor, and needy. He's speaking directly about obeying the social justice laws so well known to his audience. The Law given to Moses by God laid out a structure for taking care of the needy, but a lot of that law code doesn't really make sense today. The Law, for example, dealt with just treatment of slaves...something we find morally reprehensible today.

So how do we who are in the world today follow the wisdom of Lemuel? How do we open our mouths for those who can't? What can we do to help those who need help? How do we follow the spirit if not the letter of the old Law?

I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by others' suffering and the whole issue of social justice. "There's just so much of suffering and injustice in the world! What can I do? I can't fix the problem, after all. Poverty and hunger have always been around, right? What good will my efforts be really? Not much, so why bother? I pay my taxes. Let the government handle the problem. Yeah, the authorities are paid to deal with it, so I won't worry about it."

The Enemy loves this kind of thinking. Where's the love? Nowhere. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, has something to say about how we should proceed:


That sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn't it? But what Wesley is saying is to keep your eyes open always to opportunities to do good. If your eyes are open and looking--actively looking--you'll find all sorts of mute suffering you can speak for, you'll find all sorts of injustice you can act upon, you will find the ways you specifically are called to serve those in need.

None of us can do it all, but we are called to do what we can.

My mother taught adult literacy so grown men and women could learn to read and write. My mother-in-law quilted for missions so the cold have warm blankets. My in-laws together take meals to the hungry through Meals on Wheels. My cousin and her husband spent their vacation helping several families clear mud and trash from their homes after Hurricane Katrina.

These people didn't solve big problems...there are still plenty of people in America who can't read or write, plenty of cold people all around the world, plenty of shut-ins who go hungry, plenty of new natural disasters every year since Katrina.

But they do what they can with what they have...and make a huge difference in people's lives. They show love to the mute and needy. Because they can.

Perhaps you already have your own crusade for social justice. Perhaps you already go to a church that provides you with lots of opportunities to serve the poor and suffering regularly with your gifts and your money. Perhaps you have found your call and are acting on it already. Perhaps you already keep your eyes open for opportunities wherever you are. If so, please share in the comments. It's not bragging; your suggestions may encourage others to find similar ways to help in their communities!

If you feel like you're not doing enough for social justice, look around. What needs do you see where you are right now? What can you do to follow the wisdom of Lemuel and open your mouth for those who quietly suffer and maintain the rights of the poor and needy? Don't be afraid to start small, and don't be afraid to start big, either! Just start.

Once you start, you'll be amazed at the difference you can make in others' lives...and your own.

Praise God!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Reflections on Proverbs: Walking in Wisdom

For this week's proverb, we're starting with Proverbs 28:26,

He who trusts in his own mind is a fool;
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.

What, exactly, is walking in wisdom? And why would its opposite be trusting in one's own mind?

Another passage in Proverbs might help us here.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:5-7)

Scripture tells us repeatedly to trust in the Lord. God's got it covered. (Remember last week's proverb?) When we trust our own minds, we're not exactly trusting God, are we? Our minds are prone to error; our knowledge is imperfect and limited, yet we draw conclusions and make judgments and act as if we know it all.

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Trusting our own mind means we're arrogant, not fearfully humble before God, and leads to evil. This evil can lead to horrible suffering: think of PTL and the fleecing of the poor, think of Westboro Baptist's actions at military funerals, think of the Boston marathon bombers.

Our arrogance in thinking we are right leads us to act in ways that are very, very wrong.

And when we use God as an excuse for that wrong, our sin multiplies.

We are, however, born into the world and live in the world. We cannot avoid drawing conclusions, making judgments, and acting decisively in big and small matters every single day. We have to trust at least some of our judgments...or we become paralyzed with indecision and fear.

I have a friend who became paralyzed while trying to decide which car to buy. It's a big decision, and she was struck with doubt that she deserved the safe, reliable, used car she could easily afford. She thought it was too nice for her. She prayed but didn't feel that God was giving her a solid answer.

Let's face it. God doesn't speak to us each morning out of our blow dryers (a modern burning bush!), telling us which car to buy or where to eat lunch or whether to buy organic apples.

How, then, do we balance the necessity of living in the world with the call to walk in wisdom with God?

At least part of the answer, I think, lies in humility and love. God created the universe and all matter in it. What a miracle! How small we are, how limited! We see darkly, for a brief time. He sees clearly for all time.

Yet He loves us, each and every one of us, and wants us to love Him and each other and ourselves. He has given us free will, a will to choose our path, a will to choose evil or good.

God trusts us to think about what the right thing might be, to come to Him prayerfully with our problems, to listen to Him, to study His Word for guidance, to live in Christian community with others to help guide us, and to act always in love and humility.

This, for me, is walking in wisdom, and I fall short of it every single day.

This Week's Reflections
How do you walk in wisdom? Did I leave something out of my list? Have you ever felt that you trusted too much in your own understanding and hurt someone as a result? Has your own error ever made your path crooked? If it's still not straight, what could you do to walk in wisdom again and trust Him to straighten that path for you?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Reflections on Proverbs: Love Covers All Offenses

I might as well come clean with you now and tell you what I think the entire Bible really means, what it boils down to for me, what my guiding philosophy is for reading it, for living it.

The Bible boils down to one word, best summed up in Latin: caritas.

Charity. Love. Lovingkindness.

Love God, and love your neighbor. If it's not love, it's not biblical. If it's not love, it's not God. If it's not love, it's not Christian.

The Bible is about relationship love. God's not alone. He created us in His image so He could love us and we could love Him. Perfectly.

We are not, however, perfect, are we? We can't see as clearly as He sees. Our limits make us insecure, uneasy, suspicious, worried, hateful, less like God all the time. Our human nature makes us willful and selfish. We lose faith, lose trust, lose our ability to love perfectly.

This week's proverb is in chapter 10, verse 12:

Hatred stirs up strife,
but love covers all offenses. (Proverbs 10:12)

Hatred creates conflict between people, and between us and God. Hatred separates and hurts. Sometimes we hate ourselves, sometimes we hate difference, sometimes we hate the world, sometimes we hate God. Sometimes we hate them all at once, eaten up with hate.

Love covers all offenses. Love covers them from sight, ignores them, or forgives them. Love is big enough for all one is too offensive for God's love, and no one is outside God's forgiveness.

We have a hard time loving like God, though. We want to judge and punish, we want to exact revenge, we want to hold tight to grudges and grumbles and old hurts and new wounds.

On the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive his executioners, for they know not what they do.

You are a beloved child of God, and He will cover you.

Free will, however, means that we can't control what others feel or do. When others stir up strife with hate, making relationship impossible, we are not called to be doormats. Jesus chose his servanthood, and we aren't called to servitude or slavery. We are called to love justice (if laws have been broken, pursue right justice) and to pray for and forgive those who harm us, however hard it is, and however long it takes.

But if we love the God of Love, we know that He has plans for us to prosper. Sometimes, to love we have to remove ourselves from harm, take the opportunities God provides for good in our lives, for love.



God's got it covered.

Where in your life are you holding onto those old hurts or new wounds, where could you cover offenses with love to renew and restore relationship love? Have you ever had a relationship broken beyond repair in a broken world? How can God's love cover your wounds without the broken human relationship being restored?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reflections on Proverbs: The Beginning of Wisdom

The Book of Proverbs is part of the wisdom literature in the Bible. Back in Biblical times, no one confused Wisdom with its ugly step-child Standardized Book Learning. (Can you tell my children have gone through their third round of standardized testing this school year? Can you tell I'm not happy about that? Good. I'm not hiding that light under a bushel.)

Back to wisdom. In the olden times, before standardized tests and institutional text books and curriculum poorly designed by committees of politicians, wisdom came from experience, study of scripture, and word of mouth passed down from previous generations. Proverbs has lots of advice for children to listen to their elders.

According to Proverbs, wisdom begins with fear of God.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
   and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (Proverbs 9:10)

If you grew up in a "sinners in the hands of an angry God" church (you know who you are), then the word "fear" in this proverb may not strike you as odd. But for many of us modern-day, mainstream protestants, fear of the Lord is a hard concept.

We grew up with sweet Lord Jesus being our buddy, pal, and friend, a sort of avuncular chum, our model for behavior. Jesus loves us and is kind. He only gets angry at the money lenders in the temple. Sure, He gets impatient with the disciples and their stupidity from time to time, but He's not really a figure to incite fear in people.

God speaking out of a burning bush?  Traveling ahead of the Israelites in a thunder cloud? It's easier to fear the God of the Old Testament, isn't it?

But what, exactly, is the fear of the Lord that the proverb expresses? That's our contemplation for this week. When do you fear the Lord? What is the nature of that fear? Is it like your phobia of snakes or spiders or heights or being forced to watch Jersey Shore? How might fear make you wise? How might fear of things other than the Lord be good or bad for wisdom?

For me, fear of the Lord means being humble and awed in the face of His awesomeness. It means accepting His hugeness, His mystery, His infinite goodness and knowing in my bones that I'm just a tiny little bit of His vast and glorious creation. The beginning of wisdom is accepting that our human wisdom will never be His wisdom, accepting that we see only a piece of creation through a glass darkly, accepting that we are limited in every single way...physically, mentally, historically, spiritually, mortally.

When fear paralyzes us, I don't believe it's not fear of the Lord. God loves us and wants us to love Him and each other, and love is a verb. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." That love is active and compassionate.

A modern definition of intelligence is the facility of the mind's movement from big idea to little detail and back again. A smart person can move between the big perspective and the small details, the macro to the micro, and back again, allowing the details to influence the larger perspective and using the larger perspective to see the importance of the details. In other words, intellect is dynamic, a movement of thought, not static.

I believe God has perfection of that dynamic wisdom. He sees all, knows all, creates all...yet the fall of a sparrow matters to Him. We can never see all, and our contemplation of details is ever so limited. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to achieve wisdom as our abilities allow. We were, after all, created in His image.

But the more I know, the more I know that I know nothing. We should always be humble in our pursuit of wisdom. When wisdom begins in us, it begins with the awareness that the knowledge we seek so ardently and enthusiastically will never, ever be full and complete because we will never be God. And if our knowledge can't be complete, it will always be flawed, in a state of error, in a state of sin.

Wisdom begins with humility in the face of God's greatness. None of us is adequate in the face of God. All of us sin. Yet God is infinitely merciful, infinitely loving, infinitely forgiving.

Wisdom begins with healthy fear, not the paralyzing fear of phobia but the healthy fear of our own sin and God's own perfection.

That healthy fear grows our wisdom with a watering of mercy, love, and compassion for others and ourselves. That fear sets our feet on the path to His Kingdom.

What are your thoughts on fear of the Lord and wisdom? Do you let fear of things other than the Lord get in the way of wisdom? When do you, like Adam and Eve, want to claim the Knowledge of Good and Evil--God's own knowledge--for yourself? How are you inevitably humbled?

Please feel free to share your reflections in the comments.