Monday Morning Proverb

"Like snow in summer and rain at harvest, honor is inappropriate for a fool" -Proverbs 26:1

Some things are improper, unsuitable, incongruous, tasteless...just plain wrong. Some years ago, my wife and I were invited to a party where everyone was encouraged to dress up as old people. Don't ask me why. I just remember that we and some of our friends decided to really go for it (yes, to look older than we actually are). Out of style clothes, make up to look ancient, stuffing to look rather disheveled. It was all in good taste (sort of), but when we showed up, it appeared no one else got the message, or decided to ignore it. We were the only ones dressed rather weird. Everyone else wore normal attire, and as the evening wore on, we found ourselves terribly out of place--left to convalesce in another room dedicated to assisted living .

The sage is saying something similar here. When it comes to giving honor where honor and weight are due, it is most unfitting to honor those who carry no weight. Putting a fool in a position of honor--like, say, uh president of the United States--is highly inappropriate (which may explain a lot of our nation's angst!). It would be turning the world upside down, where things are suddenly topsy-turvy. It just doesn't fit. As the sage puts it, it would be as incongruous as snow in summer, which, in arid Palestine, would be totally unexpected and wildly out of place. In our context we might say it would be like an actual sunny day during Rose Festival week in Portland, or the Chargers holding on to a lead (urggghh!). More than out of place, it would be as damaging as rain in harvest. Honoring a fool...this would be as ridiculous as watching someone bind a stone in a sling and whirl it round and round without catapulting it (vs 8). Who knows what will happen.

It's all part of a chapter devoted to describing things that just do not mix. Foolish behavior and wisdom do not mix either. You may as well try to blend oil and water. It is lame to teach proverbs to idiots (vs 7). They will use these distilled observations of life to do really stupid things--like turn them into unconditional promises. This is what happens when proverbs get into the hands of the health and wealth gospel crowd. All lathered up, their evangelists quote 3:9-10 as a guarantee of a full garage--so long as you honor the Lord by giving them your money. Foolish parents will quote the proverb. "Spare the rod and spoil the child," to justify abusive behavior. Moronic types will quote "No harm befalls the righteous" to judge those who are afflicted with disease and loss, much like Job's senseless and reckless friends did.

It is fair to say no book has suffered such hermeneutical abuse as Proverbs, meaning it has gotten into the hands of a lot of foolish preachers . The warning here is that proverbs that are misused, misinterpreted, manipulated and misapplied can lead to real damage. This is why, in the same context, the sage warns that a proverb in the mouth of the fool is like a drunkard with a dangerous weapon (v. 9). Who knows the havoc about to be unleashed.

On the other side, honor is fitting for the one who gives oneself to the disciplines of wisdom. It's like snow in winter and rain in the spring. These are the ones who carry weight.  Their acts are timely, always in season. They launch their stones to their rightful targets. Their words inspire to greatness. In the mouth of the wise, proverbs are like goads that prod us into action; like nails that anchor things into place (Ecc 12:11).

 

 

 

 

Dieter

This past Saturday night, Heather and I shared dinner with others, including a man I have known for over forty years. We first met in a church where I was doing youth ministry. I was leading about 30--40 teenagers, and he was one of them. They were energetic and teachable (for the most part), and sometimes maddening, but this young man, Dieter, was different. Gifted, handsome,  charismatic, and curious--I sensed he was an up and coming bright star. We would have deep talks, wrestling with issues like if it is okay to kiss a girl on the first date. Mostly we talked about Jesus.

Our paths went separate ways, but I still followed his course. It was not difficult. Dieter's life became more and more visible. Moving to southern California, he pioneered one of the first GenX churches. Willow Creek and Bill Hybels took notice, and he was called to lead Axis, which became a thriving ministry to twenty and thirty-somethings. Dieter's stage presence, communication skills, and musical talents were sought after. His words were published. For aspiring and ambitious ministers, this was (and is) a symbol of making it to the top.

I would occasionally come across an article he wrote in Leadership Journal, or something he had a hand in publishing. I was happy for Dieter, grateful for any role I had in shaping him. But things began to change in the later 90's. Dieter was particularly impacted by the thinking of Dallas Willard and his books such as Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart. All of this influenced his decision to leave a high profile ministry and move back to the West coast. Dieter settled in San Francisco and shifted his focus to creating house churches and mentoring young pastors to reach the next generation.

Our paths crossed during this time. Dieter was speaking at a pastor's conference in San Diego, and we connected to briefly share our lives. Dieter seemed more serious, quieter and more reflective, yet still having a significant and visible ministry. More years passed, and one day the worship pastor I worked with at Village passed on a video and told me I needed to see it. It portrayed a story of a very simple man who gave his best time to stopping traffic so kids could safely cross the street. It was Dieter! How could this be? Someone who commanded the stage was now directing cars. It turns out that on February 4, 2008, Dieter had suffered a major stroke and went into a coma. Six days later he woke up a different man. As Bill Gaultiere notes in an article about his life, "Dieter's stage was gone. The applause he thrived on was gone. The opportunity to use his talents and earn a living were gone. It seemed everything was all gone."

I attempted to connect with Dieter, but there were no returns to my emails. Time went by, and I lost track of Dieter--until recently. About nine months ago, Dieter moved back to Portland to be near his aging parents. That German Baptist youth group I once led recently had a reunion of sorts, and Dieter showed up, all leading to this dinner.

His life is much simpler now. Dieter lives alone in an apartment, working at Trader Joes, where he mops floors and stocks shelves. Lots has changed. But some things have not. During the course of our time together Saturday night, it was evident that Dieter had the same humor, the same joy, and the same peace. Most of all--I could see that he had the same love for God. It would be easy to be bitter, but Dieter is more than settled with God's ways and God's will. He sees himself as more whole today. God's grace continues to work deeply in his soul.

It leaves me astounded at the mysterious and powerful ways of God. Years ago, Dieter was given the skills to lead people to worship God and praise Him. He still has those skills--only they are much quieter and more genuine. You spend time with Dieter and want to bow down before God.

 

Monday Morning Proverb

"'It's worthless, it's worthless!' the buyer says, but after he is on his way, he gloats." -Proverbs 20:14

Yesterday, we purchased a car. Most of us have gone through this experience. It is rarely a simple transaction. It's not like going to Safeway and picking up a cake mix--unless you're the type paralyzed in the aisle by indecision. If deliberating between Carrot or Spice leads to some sort of meltdown, you would be wise to avoid ever, ever buying a car.

I've always found a car purchase to be something akin to high stakes gamesmanship. It involves meticulous preparation. What are comparable cars going for at other dealers? What is the savings if I buy used? What are the reviews on this car? What can I do to make the car I am trading in look really good? (sort of like flossing extra hard before going to the dentist). What are my parameters--my walk away plan if the negotiations break down? (which often breaks down after several hours under the intense glare of the showroom lights).

Towards the end, after negotiations have gone back and forth (which has the feel of Kissinger flying back and forth between Paris and Hanoi), talks often collapse. But out in the parking lot, discussions once again resume, and finally a tentative agreement is reached. Afterwards, there is usually this exchange--"Well this is more than my wife and I really wanted to spend" followed by the manager who comes out of some back office to let us know that while they have lost money on this deal, what matters is that the customer leave happy. Everyone puts on a rather grim face, until buyer and seller leave and boast to others how they made a shrewd transaction.

Our morning proverb reminds us this sort of haggling has gone on from the beginning. On the surface, it is a humorous depiction of a normal trading practice at a Middle Eastern Suk. I have been in these settings often. The seller overprices his product, and the buyer uses his wit to bring the price down to his advantage. Over tea, a game of attrition ensues--the buyer protests, the seller puts on a dispirited face and becomes very quiet, eventually caving in. The price is paid, and everyone leaves congratulating themselves. It's a game played out every day.

The sage is a professional life watcher, and in this proverb he writes what he observes in the market. But proverbs are more than descriptive statements. If we stop and ponder, there is always an admonition behind the lines. The sage is not interested in merely describing life--he is teaching wisdom. He is calling for action. In this case, if you are going to make a purchase, do your homework. The value of something is always relative. Wise is the person who knows the true worth of what he is purchasing. 

But there may be more going on here. The writer of Proverbs is not interested in giving mere domestic tips. Like all of Scripture, these words are God breathed and profitable for training in righteousness--that the man of God be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Could it be God is raising some probing questions here? Is He honored where a form of mutual deceit takes place? Is He pleased where there is self boasting? Is this a game that brings Him pleasure?

On a final night in Israel, I was waiting in line to make one last purchase of a gift. In front of me were two Americans who had just arrived to begin their "Holy Land Tour." Noticing that I was waiting,  one of the women turned and said to me, "Oh honey, you just go ahead of us. We're trying to Jew this man down." Suddenly, it got real quiet, and with some embarrassment she responded, "Oops, I shouldn't have said this." It was a classic moment. But it may have underscored the sage's point. One should be honest in selling and one should be prudent in buying, and all should be holy in living. This is the wisest transaction of all.

 

Are We Winning the Battle and Losing the War?

This week I spent time with a pastor whose church is in the process of shifting locations. If the transaction works out, his congregation may actually meet in a building dedicated to sacred space--a church--for the first time. No more renting space in secular venues, setting up chairs, dealing with unexpected curves in the schedule. That's good news. What is unfortunate is that the previous body of believers that once met and worshipped in this space has diminished to about fifteen. Like many other mainline churches, this one is on the verge of death.

There's nothing really new about this. All too many mainline protestant churches have closed their doors. Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others once represented the majority of all Christians in the US, but their more liberal approach to social issues (believing Christianity is fundamentally a social movement), their shift from honoring the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God (which in their minds teaches intolerant ideas like Jesus alone is the answer) to a more enlightened moralistic message (tolerance, pluralism, and individual authority and freedom), and the loss of gospel proclamation from their pulpits (or maybe the creation of a different definition of gospel) have all contributed to their demise.

But while mainline churches may be emptying out, some would say their causes have won. They convinced many in American society that it is not Christian to be traditionally Christian. This is the assessment of Matthew Rose in a recent First Things article, "Death of God Fifty Years On." He takes note of the paradox that mainline Protestantism has experienced both institutional defeat and cultural victory. Describing this, he writes,  "On virtually every issue that consumed its postwar energies--from civil rights to feminism to gay rights--the mainline churches have been vindicated by elite opinion. At the same time, their membership has evaporated."  

Ironically, today the five fastest growing denominations in America have these things in common--they are evangelical, committed to the authority of the Scripture, opposed to homosexual behavior, and believe women should share in the roles of leadership. But one cannot help but ask, "Is there also a paradox here? Do a wide spectrum of evangelicals represent just the opposite--institutional victory and cultural defeat?" We might point to numerous church plants and growing congregations, but are we really impacting culture? And if not, why not? As ubiquitous as Starbucks are, there are twenty-eight churches for every Starbucks. One would think there would be a greater spiritual transformation taking place in society.

Could it be we are preaching the gospel as defined in Scripture, but largely preaching to ourselves? Is the growth we talk about representative of people coming to faith or disgruntled believers shifting venues? Has church become an institution of convenience? Are we going deep in our faith, seeing the kind of maturation that will prevent us from eventually losing convictions and one day selling our churches to other groups?

The good news is that I sense more and more ministry leaders are asking these questions, acknowledging the challenges ahead, and praying for renewal and revival--praying to win more than the battle.

What do you think?

 

 

MONDAY MORNING PROVERB

"The prudent keep their knowledge to themselves, but a fool's heart blurts out folly."-Proverbs 12:23

Recently, my wife has got me hooked on Longmire. I seldom watch TV, but I have become engrossed in a Netflix series based upon the Walt Longmire mystery novels by author Craig Johnson. Robert Taylor plays the role of Longmire, a rugged sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming. Every episode has multiple subplots, each doing what great stories do--creating nerve wracking tension (a sort of Western version of 24). There is always some tragedy, some act of evil lurking in the shadows. Just when the sun comes out, and everything is as it should be, serious storms of injustice come out of nowhere, darken the skies, and unleash their fury. A doctor is murdered; a girl goes missing; a deputy turns rogue. As a lawman, Longmire bravely confronts each one, often alone. He lives by a code of justice and patrols the county with a quiet steadiness. He is a throwback to the Marlboro man. You seldom know what he is thinking. Like the Lone Ranger, he seldom shows his face, rarely shows his cards.

Those more sophisticated might say such character types need professional help. It's important to be open, release the pain or anger deep inside, and become transparent. And while there is some truth here, wisdom would say that holding things back isn't all bad. Shrewd is the man who keeps certain things to himself--close to the vest. He understands that timing matters. Knowledge is wasted when it is given in the wrong moment--when no one is listening. The wise realize that motive also regulates the dispensing of one's understanding. Prudent is the person who pauses to ask--"Why am I sharing this?" Is it simply to look good? Knowledge, the hard won sort that is carefully mined, must be carefully regulated. Things valued are things measured.

Fools are different. They make a public proclamation of their folly. They blurt out their stupidity. They have no filters. Social media has become their technological advance. Twitter and Snapchat and Facebook are golden for such types.  Valuable as these platforms are--let's face it--much of it is a waste of time--a deposit of nonsense. And often, way too much information is shared. Feelings best left to oneself, pictures that should never be shared, and ideas that should never see the light of day are thoughtlessly blurted out. Lost is the recognition that there is a time to reveal and a time to conceal.

So before that Tweet, before you determine to weigh in with your opinion, or tell everyone what you think, consider the prudence that comes with being cautious, measured, and sometimes even quiet. Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent (17:28).