Proverbs 29

Proverbs 29 contains much wisdom about a variety of subjects – all relating to relationships.  Throughout it, we hear single sentences of wisdom that span time and place.  The majority of the chapter deals with leadership and those in charge – rulers, to be more specific.  Here are some sections of it:

When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice;
but when the wicked rule, the people groan.
By justice a king gives stability to the land,
but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it.
In the transgression of the evil there is a snare,
but the righteous sing and rejoice.
The righteous know the rights of the poor;
the wicked have no such understanding.
Scoffers set a city aflame,
but the wise turn away wrath.
If the wise go to law with fools,
there is ranting and ridicule without relief.
The bloodthirsty hate the blameless,
and they seek the life of the upright.
A fool gives full vent to anger,
but the wise quietly holds it back.
If a ruler listens to falsehood,
all his officials will be wicked.
The poor and the oppressor have this in common:
the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.
If a king judges the poor with equity,
his throne will be established for ever.
When the wicked are in authority, transgression increases,
but the righteous will look upon their downfall.
Do you see someone who is hasty in speech?
There is more hope for a fool than for anyone like that.
One given to anger stirs up strife,
and the hothead causes much transgression.
A person’s pride will bring humiliation,
but one who is lowly in spirit will obtain honour.
To be a partner of a thief is to hate one’s own life;
one hears the victim’s curse, but discloses nothing.
The fear of others lays a snare,
but one who trusts in the Lord is secure.
Many seek the favour of a ruler,
but it is from the Lord that one gets justice.
The unjust are an abomination to the righteous,
but the upright are an abomination to the wicked.

(Portions of Proverbs 29, NRSV)

Proverbs are timeless pieces of wisdom that offer warning to those who ignore their advice, consolation to those who fall victim of the unjust, and support for the righteous who follow Proverbs’ lead.

Given how many leadership books have been written over time, Proverbs still seems to offer something that modern-day leadership gurus can’t.  It offers the same thing that no politician or government agency can offer.  Proverbs offers the immaterial – a recognition of the existence of something beyond the material world.  It counters popular theologies and ideologies of our time – that might makes right, that the ends justify the means.  Proverbs shows both of these ways of thinking to be empty and lead to destruction to everyone.

Proverbs 29 isn’t so much advice for leaders as it is a window view into the character and consequences of leaders who are unjust.  When we come across unjust rulers, or suffer under their leadership, Proverbs 29 offers us what the results will be, what the methods are, and what we can expect from these individuals.  The benefit of this is that there is no surprise when an unjust ruler acts unjustly.  The only surprise, really, is that there are people who fall for, and make excuses for, the lies and unjust actions and behaviors.

Could be any city

Yesterday I read the book of Zephaniah.  I wanted to read it to get better context on the reading that is schedule for this Sunday – Zephaniah 3:14-20, which happens to be the end of the book.  The assigned reading is a joy-filled text with much rejoicing.

But to really appreciate that joy and rejoicing, it helps to read the rest of the book and see how joyless it is.

Here’s a segment that caught my attention:

Ah, soiled, defiled,
oppressing city!
It has listened to no voice;
it has accepted no correction.
It has not trusted in the Lord;
it has not drawn near to its God.


The officials within it
are roaring lions;
its judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing until the morning.
Its prophets are reckless,
faithless persons;
its priests have profaned what is sacred,
they have done violence to the law.
The Lord within it is righteous;
he does no wrong.
Every morning he renders his judgement,
each dawn without fail;
but the unjust knows no shame.

(Zephaniah 3:1-5, NRSV)

As I read this, I was struck by the timelessness of this passage.  It could have been written about any city, any capital, any nation, any leader, at any time.

Zephaniah describes the norm of humanity and human governance.  If you don’t believe that humanity is sinful and broken, and is bent towards evil, then look through human history.  Humans are not good at the core. We only become “good” because of what God does to and for us.

But there are plenty who reject God.  They pursue other gods – wealth, power, influence.  This is nothing new.

And the message of the prophets is always the same – the day of reckoning is coming for those who use and abuse power and wealth against the poor and outcast.  The wealthy and the powerful will fall.  It is inevitable.

And that is where we pick up the end of Zephaniah – the joy-filled and rejoicing message.  When the evil and abusive are brought down, there will be rejoicing.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
   as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

(Zephaniah 3:14-20, NRSV)

No matter how bad things are or are headed, we can rejoice, because the day of the Lord is coming to bring salvation.  The mighty will fall and be made low.  The abusers will be swept away.  Those that attach themselves to the wicked will scatter.  And there will be a day of rejoicing.  The faithful remnant will be restored.  God is always in the business of restoration, resurrection, and rejoicing.  Rejoice!  Shout for joy!  Exult!

Long and Short term thinking

We’ve all seen it – someone bragging about some kind of financial success that happened over the last month or quarter.  Or maybe it’s a win in sports.  Or maybe it’s some kind of uptick in membership for an organization in the last month.  Or any number of other things.

These are all short-term foci.  They aren’t bad by themselves.  In fact, we all need to hear about these near term success stories.  They move us in the right direction.  Except when they don’t.

Too often, our focus remains totally engrossed in these short-term gains.  When we only look at the short term, we don’t have the full picture.  The long-term offers us trends that are reliable and based on data.  The long term gives us insight into how long something has been going on, and where things are likely to go if nothing changes.

Short term success usually doesn’t last.  That’s because it’s a poor foundation to make long-term important decisions.  Too often our politicians approach things from short-term perspectives – their concern being how a law or policy will impact their re-election chances.  This is how we end up with short-sighted policies and laws that end up costing far more than predicted and creating more problems than they solve.  This is also how we have ended up with cover ups – concern for the short term impact, rather than long term consequences which have a bigger impact.  The same could be said for any organization or system – whether it be political, social, or religious.

Movements grow and movements die

There are many different movements – political, religious, social, etc.  Here’s one definition I found:

“In the social sciences, a political movement is a social group that operates together to obtain a political goal, on a local, regional, national, or international scope. Political movements develop, coordinate, promulgate, revise, amend, interpret, and produce materials that are intended to address the goals of the base of the movement.” (Source)

I would argue that all movements are like this.  A religious movement may not have political ends in mind, but they have the core essentials of a movement, just like political movements – a group of people who come together to obtain a goal.   They want to change something that exists.

Here’s something I know about movements – movements centered on a person don’t last beyond that person.  They can’t.  Once the driving force is gone, the movement collapses on itself.  Movements based on a leader can’t continue without the leader.

Even Jesus knew this.  Through the Gospels we hear Jesus telling his disciples to not tell anyone about him.  Instead, it was always a focus on the reign of God, and living out the Good News.  That’s not to say that Jesus is absent in the movement of Christianity – far from it.  It’s to say that Christianity, as a movement, is more than just about Jesus.  Jesus embodies something more than just a personality leading a movement.  Or as the Gospel of John puts it – The Word became flesh.

A movement based on ideas, beliefs, and living out those ideas and beliefs has a much better chance of long-term survival and at thriving.

When I read the news, whether it be US news or news from other places, I am often looking at it through the lens of movement.  When a movement is all about its leader, I don’t worry about too much.  It will die off when the leader disappears due to leaving the leadership position they hold or death.  Leader centered movements usually die off in a whimper.  Movements that prosper and thrive are ones where the leader recognizes this flaw and does something about it – empowers others to carry the mantle of something bigger than the leader(s).  And then the leader willingly steps back to let others lead – in other words, the leader recognizes that a movement isn’t narcissistic – centered on the leader.  It’s so much more.  Today’s political movements won’t last, mostly because they are centered on politicians.  Once those politicians are gone, so are their movements.  That’s because they claimed ownership and never turned over ownership to others to move the movement forward.

Can you think of a movement that was centered on a figure rather than ideas and beliefs and living out those ideas and beliefs?  I welcome your comments.

No reaction

Why is it when we read Luke 3:1-3, no one reacts?

Here’s the passage:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,

Read that passage slowly.  You have a long list of people in power, and then John.  No one bats an eye at this passage.  But you should.  Here’s the modern-day equivalent:

In the second year of the reign of President Trump, when Tom Wolf was governor of Pennsylvania, and Tim Scott was mayor of Carlisle, during the pastorate of Matthew Best at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, the word of God came to John, the homeless guy living in the tent camp behind Giant.

That’s essentially what is being proclaimed.  In the modern-day version, we sit back and say, who the heck is John the homeless guy and why does he get some kind of special message from God?  He’s just crazy.  He thinks God is talking to him.  How could that be – he doesn’t have any special training.

He’s going around yelling at people, just like John did.  He’s living in his own wilderness, just like John did.  He’s on a unique diet, just like John was.  Yet somehow we don’t bat an eye when we hear this passage applying to John, a homeless guy in the Judean wilderness who yells at people, but we think it’s crazy when we apply it to John, a homeless guy who lives behind Giant who yells at people.

Something to ponder.

What do we really love?

Or who?

It is what we love – or more particularly, who we love.  To whom do we respond?  To whom do we give our attention?  Whom do we want about all else to please?  Whose smile is our greatest reward; whose frown our severest punishment?  Who awakes in us our best, and subdues in us our worst? Who shapes our senses of values to his own?  Who captures our wills until we want for ourselves what he wants for us?  Love can be faked for a while.  But someday the pretense will show up for what it is.  Then a man’s real love will be manifest – whether it be for money, or for fame, or for himself, or for whatever or whomever else.  What a man loves above all else is within the realm of his personal freedom to determine, and it is the most important thing about him, whoever he is.  This is confirmed in the face that the first and greatest commandment is “Thou shalt love the Lord.” It is confirmed, too, in that the first – indeed the only – question which the risen Christ demanded that Peter settle once for all, and which he alone could settle for himself, was “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” More than these – more than your opinions, your habits, your customary way of doing things, your comfort and your convenience.  For all your failures of the past, your compromising involvements in the present – do you love me?

(Source: Questions God Asks, Beckelhymer, 1961, pg. 127-8)

Jesus asks each one of us – Do you love me?  What is our response?  Do we voice the words of love, yet not act them out?  Are our words matched by our actions?  Or do our actions speak louder than our words and confirm the answer?

Do we love our neighbors?  That doesn’t seem too difficult.

How about your enemies – do you love them?  Jesus said to love your enemies.  That wasn’t a suggestion.

How about love of God?  How would we show love of God?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment.

(Matthew 22:37-38, NRSV)

How do we show love of Jesus?

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

(John 14:15, NRSV)

These aren’t suggestions that can ignored.  They are ways that we show what is really going inside of us.

When Jesus asks “Do you love me?”  What is your answer?

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

(Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV)

Jesus is asking – Do you love me?  Show me.

Tis the season…

Tis the season for some really terrible music.  Why is it that terrible music becomes acceptable this time of year?  It’s like the musical version of the ugly sweater.  I just don’t get it.

Here’s my list of top five picks for terrible Christmas songs (and an honorable mention):

5. “Baby it’s cold outside.”  It’s like attempted date rape put to a catchy tune.  Terrible message.

4. “Christmas Shoes.”  Seriously?  You are going to buy shoes for your mom while she is dying?  Spend time with her and forget the presents.

3. “Last Christmas.”  Oy.  Really has nothing to do with Christmas.  This is one of those songs that gets stuck in your head and makes you want to be the mom in the Christmas Shoes song to make it end.

2. “Mary did you know?” Bad theology.  Read Luke 1 to hear from Mary herself what she knew.  Anything else she didn’t know was unimportant.

and the #1 most terrible Christmas song is:

“Do they know it’s Christmas?”  Yes, they know.  They have calendars, they had them in 1984.  Not only that, but the Ethiopian Orthodox church has existed for something like 1500 year, so yes, they know.  Here are some other dandy lines from this terrible song that drive me crazy – “There’ll be no snow in Africa this Christmas.”  No crap, Most of Africa is in the southern hemisphere, which means it’s summer there.  Summer=no snow.  And the worst line of all – “Tonight be glad it’s them instead of you.”  Do I even need to comment about this?  AAAAHHHHH!

Here’s my honorable mention – “The 12 days of Christmas.”  The only reason this song doesn’t make the official list is that it has one redeeming characteristic – it reminds the listener that Christmas is an actual season, not just one day.  A whole season. And not from right after Halloween on.  No, it starts on Dec. 25 and goes through Jan. 5.

So there’s my official list of terrible Christmas songs.  What songs make your list of terrible Christmas music?  Share them in the comment section.

Daniel 8 is good news

At the end of their rule,
when the transgressions have reached their full measure,
a king of bold countenance shall arise,
skilled in intrigue.
He shall grow strong in power,
shall cause fearful destruction,
and shall succeed in what he does.
He shall destroy the powerful
and the people of the holy ones.
By his cunning
he shall make deceit prosper under his hand,
and in his own mind he shall be great.
Without warning he shall destroy many
and shall even rise up against the Prince of princes.
But he shall be broken, and not by human hands.

(Daniel 8:23-25, NRSV)

I posted Daniel chapter 8 because we are in the midst of Hanukkah.  Hanukkah is part of the larger story of Judas Maccabeus rising up against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, throwing him off, reclaiming and purifying the Temple.

The line of Daniel 8 that always catches my attention is verse 25:  “But he shall be broken, but not by human hands.”  This is actually in conflict with what actually happened through the revolt of the Maccabees.

But the sentiment if important.  It is the idea that regardless of what is happening, no matter how bad it is getting, God will prevail.  Always.  No one can prevail against God.  No earthly ruler has the power.  In the end they all fall.

This is good news still today.  It is a reminder that no matter who is in power, their power will only be for a short time.  Then it will pass on to someone else.

Winners and Losers

There are some, possibly many, in this world that believe that there are only two types of people in the world – winners and losers.  This isn’t new.  This idea has spanned time and place.  There is nothing special about this idea.

The draw, I suppose, to this way of thinking is that it is simple.  You fall into one category or the other.  There is no gray, no spectrum, no wiggle room, no possibilities – no thinking necessary.  Just winners and losers.  Supposedly.

The problem with this way of thinking is that in the end, we all lose.  We all are losers at some point.  Even those that were winners their entire life end up losing – because we all die.

Jesus had some thoughts about winners and losers too.  He didn’t use those words exactly.

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

(Matthew 20:16, NRSV)

Jesus spent time with outcasts all the time, the losers of his time.  He spent time with people were of little value in his world or to the winners who ran his world.  We might call these people losers.

The world declares those who are poor and poor in spirit as losers.  The world declares those who mourn as losers.  The world declares that the meek are pathetic losers.  The world declares the hungry as losers.  The world declares the merciful as suckers and losers.  The world declares the pure in heart as losers.  The world declares peacemakers as losers.  The world declares those that are persecuted as losers.

And Jesus had a message for the losers of his world and for our time too:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV)

As you read through the Beatitudes above, add a word – “Loser”.

It might sound something like this:

Blessed are the losers who are poor in spirit.  Blessed are the losers who mourn.  Blessed are the losers who are meek.  Blessed are the losers who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the losers who are merciful.  Blessed are the losers who are pure in heart.  Blessed are the losers who are peacemakers.  Blessed are the losers who are persecuted.

There are those in this world, especially those in powerful positions, who think they get to define who the winners and the losers are.

But they don’t.

They are only here for a short time, and then they go away, most to be forgotten in history, rightfully so.  Losers in their own right.

But God doesn’t forget.  God remembers the losers of this world and cares for them and calls on us to care to.  To love the losers.  To show mercy to the losers.  To forgive the losers.  To make peace with the losers.

Why?

Because God did this for us – losers in our own right.

And so we go to the losers, because we are losers too.  And Jesus offers blessings to us.

Forget what the world thinks is a winner and a loser.  It will pass.  God and God’s reign are eternal.  The Kingdom of God is for the losers of this world.

 

Questions that humble us

The period following their return from Babylonian exile was a period of intense nationalism and isolationism among the Jewish people.  But for that matter, what period isn’t?  And what people are devoid of this spirit?  What sentiment is more common, around the world and through the ages, than patriotism?  What feelings are more easily aroused, around the world in any century, than suspicion and dislike of foreigners and all things foreign?

(Source: Questions God Asks, Hunter Beckelhymer, 1961, pg. 73)

What great questions these are.

When I read this I was reminded of something – there is nothing special about the time we each live in.  Our time is not so special as to be all that different from most of human history.  History didn’t start when we were born and it won’t most likely end when we die.

This is a humbling thought.  It is one that I hear expressed in the words of the Old Testament Bible books of Job and Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes 3 especially speaks about a time for this and a time for that – is this anything new?

What is the desire and draw of nationalism and isolationism?  I’ll be honest, I don’t get it.

Why are we drawn to suspicion and dislike of foreigners and all things foreign?  Again, I don’t get it.

What is amazing to me is that humanity hasn’t changed all that much for several thousand years – as long as civilization has been something that humanity has valued.

Why are we drawn towards tribal identities?  Why are we drawn towards separating others from ourselves, instead of seeing the similarities we share with these “others?”

Why do we start with the belief that we are the norm and anyone else who is different is the odd ball?

I don’t expect to get a lot of good answers to these questions.  And really, that’s not the point.  Because the answers would never really satisfy the questions.  Of course there are answers, but when we dig into those answers, they just seem really lacking, missing some important elements that seem far more important than what the answers offer.