Archive for February 2008

Day Dreamers in St. Louis

February 28, 2008

“. . . if you seek it [wisdom] like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2.4, 5).

Is wisdom a gift or an achievement?  Sometimes the Scriptures seem to say, “gift.”  James encourages us, for example, with this precious promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jas. 1.5).  Of Solomon, the wisest of the wise, we read: “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure” (1 Ki. 4.29).  Likewise, David glorified God because, he said, “You teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Ps. 51.6).  And right here, in Proverbs 2, Solomon declares, “the Lord gives wisdom” (Prov. 2.6).

But then, almost in the same breath, the Scripture seems to say, “wisdom is an achievement.”  Three times in Proverbs 2, Solomon puts conditions on wisdom: “if you receive my words” (v. 1); “if you call out for insight” (v. 3); “if you seek it [wisdom] like silver” (v. 4)-“then you will understand the fear of the Lord” (v. 5).

So where does this leave us?  If wisdom is knowing and doing the will of God in every circumstance of life, does it come to us as a gift-there just for the asking?  Or by blood, sweat, and tears, the way a scholar strives for mastery, or a miner toils for treasure?

God’s Word is never at odds with itself, so let’s ask the question a different way: “How is it that wisdom can be both a gift and an achievement?”  For Scripture could not make it more plain that wisdom is a gift.  God and God alone is the source, the fountain, the wellspring, of wisdom.  Thus did Job cry out in the dark night of his soul, “where shall wisdom be found?” (Job 28.12).  He knew that “there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold that they refine” (28.1), but, he wanted to know, “From where does . . . wisdom come?” (28.20).  And did Job find an answer?  Yes-“And He [God] said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom‘” (28.28).

Then where does the “seeking like silver” come in?  Maybe this will help.  In 1876, at the height of the Gold Rush, 10,000 people lived in Hill City.  With no roads, cars, electricity, or any other modern convenience, they came by the thousands, hundreds of miles, literally at the risk of their lives (and, by the way, in violation of the law) – all because here they knew they could find gold here.  The Hills, we might say, gave the gold.  But only to those driven to go where it was.  The Black Hills gave no gold to daydreamers in St. Louis, but to panners and hardrockers desperate enough to get here.

Today, the gold is gone (and the population of Hill City hovers at 800), but God still gives wisdom in abundance – something far more precious than gold – the knowledge and understanding that make life all He intended it to be.  He gives richly, profusely, generously, freely.  But only to those who want it badly enough to come to Him.  Not to daydreamers in St. Louis.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Advertisements

All the Way In

February 21, 2008

By wisdom a house is built,
and by understanding it is established;

by knowledge the rooms are filled
with all precious and pleasant riches (Prov. 24.3, 4).

Somewhere on my “Bucket List” – along with “hike the Appalachian Trail,” “drive to Alaska,” and “write a book on Proverbs” – is “build my own house.” How or when (or whether) that could ever happen I do not know. Before he married in 1938, Carol’s father built the house she grew up in – a small frame house on cinder block piers – and he lived there the rest of his life. Her mother only left when Alzheimer’s forced her into a nursing home. And today, seventy years later, someone still lives in the house. Humble as it was, my father-in-law built it well. Whether I could even come close to his achievement, I do not know, but someday I’d like to try.

A well-built house doesn’t just happen. The right things must be done the right way, in the right order, with the right materials. Sure, you can paint over shortcuts, and market a house with nothing more than smell and pizzazz. But it takes time, attention to detail, and pride in your work to build a house that lasts.

That holds true as well for building a life. “By wisdom a house is built,” Solomon says, “and by understanding it is established.” A well-built life, like a well-built house, doesn’t just happen – the right things, the right way, the right order, the right materials. It takes time, attention to detail, and a God-kind of pride in your work. It takes “wisdom” – for wisdom is simply knowing and doing what pleases God in every circumstance, a God-kind of pride in the work of life, if you will. As the Apostle Paul puts it, in all things “we make it our aim to please Him” (2 Cor. 5.9).

So, yes, wisdom must begin with the knowledge of God-who He is, what He has done, what He requires-but wisdom never “knows” just for the sake of knowing, or knows just “in theory,” like Lucy, who said: “I love the world, it’s people I can’t stand.” Wisdom would never say that. Wisdom is a practitioner, not a professor, a boots-on-the-ground disciple, not an armchair theologian. Take this bit of theology, for example: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13.35). Pure theology-from our Lord Jesus Himself-but wisdom gives it hands and feet. Wisdom visits a shut-in, chaperones a youth group, teaches a class, comforts a troubled friend, or picks up the phone and calls to apologize. Again, theology says, “love your enemies” (Matt. 5.44)-Jesus again! – but wisdom does not calcify this truth in platitudes. Instead, wisdom goes out of its way to show kindness to the office crank, refuses to criticize a critic, or prays for a backstabber who is suddenly in trouble (finally getting what he deserves!). And wisdom pays the same attention to every detail of God.

A carpenter does not build a fine house by studying physics – even though, you might say, everything he does is physics – no, he builds a fine house by nailing every nail all the way in. And that’s how wisdom builds a life. You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Dr. Richard Wells

Cupellation

February 16, 2008

The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,

and the Lord tests hearts (Prov 17.3).

Birmingham, Alabama has its own “Mt. Rushmore,” after a fashion. That is, since 1981, when the National Park Service made Sloss Furnaces a National Historical Landmark. From1882 to 1971, the great mill in the heart of “Steel City” produced tons beyond counting of refined (“pig”) iron. Today it is a museum and learning center, telling the story of the “Pittsburgh of the South,” and if ever you are in Birmingham, believe me, the tour is worth the price of admission.

Until I took the tour myself some years ago, I had no idea how much goes in to making an ordinary piece of steel, or how difficult and dangerous the work was . . . and is. First, the iron must be extracted from the ore-that’s what they did at Sloss-which means heating the ore upwards of 2000° F to burn off impurities and produce “pig iron” (so named because the ingots resemble suckling pigs). The pig iron then must be heated again with coke and limestone (at temperatures approaching 3000°) to remove slag. The result is still a low-grade steel-higher grades require still more refining. It is hard, dirty work; and if you’re not careful, you could lose your life. That’s the price to be paid for having spoons and forks.

The work is not so hazardous, but refining gold and silver is actually much more difficult than making steel, even with modern methods and state-of-the-art technology. And in ancient times, it was laborious in the extreme. The ore itself had to be mined and crushed (often after being burned), usually by slaves. (An ancient Egyptian writer called this the work of “miserable wretches.”) And since gold almost always occurs mixed with other metals, it took repeated cupellations to extract the gold and refine it to wedding ring quality.

What Solomon describes in our proverb is “cupellation.” Crushed ore was melted down to separate slag from heavy metal alloys made up of silver and gold (which almost always occur together), mixed with lead, copper, and other metals and impurities. The refiner then put the alloy material into a cupel (the “crucible”), and fired it in a “furnace.” And he would repeat the process over and over-separating, refining, purifying-until, at last, he had pure and precious gold. “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold.”

Even from this sanitized account, we can get some idea why the Bible so often uses cupellation to teach us about spiritual growth. The “furnace” and the “crucible” teach us that gold and silver-precious as they are-have no real value until the impurities are removed. Gold is really gold even in the mine; but refining is required to make it really shine. We also learn that removing the impurities will be painful, and that it takes time. Of course, we also learn that refining requires a refiner-someone skilled enough to conduct each cupellation so that more impurities are removed, and someone patient enough to keep refining until the gold is really pure. And so, Solomon says, “the Lord tests hearts.”

Every work of God in our lives is designed to separate the valuable from the worthless, the honorable from the shameful, the precious from the profane, so that, as Peter says, “the genuineness of your faith-more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1.7). The pain, as we say, is worth the gain. You are loved,

Your Pastor,

Dr. Richard Wells

Judgment Day and the Wal-Mart Return Policy

February 7, 2008

“Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit,

but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov. 10.2).

Reading this proverb on the surface, you might merely conclude that cheating is bad business and that the Enrons of the world will finally get their just deserts. Cheating is bad business, to be sure, and sometimes an Enron does come crashing down; but the reality is that crime often seems to pay handsomely. The Psalmist agonized over this very fact: “In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor,” he wrote, yet his “ways prosper at all times,” while he “says in his heart, ‘I shall not be moved; throughout all generations I shall not meet with adversity‘” (Ps. 10.2, 5, 6). Solomon adds the thought that “righteousness delivers from death.” But isn’t it also true (asked one of the ancient writers) that many wicked men “avoid death by paying money?” Perhaps Solomon has a deeper meaning in mind here.

And perhaps we can tell the meaning by looking more closely at these “treasures gained by wickedness.” We naturally think of some unscrupulous business victimizing the average man. But what about the average man, like you and me, who (for example) fails to report income on his 1040, or pockets the ten dollars too much he got back from a store clerk, or accepts full pay for half effort, or doesn’t pay his debts, or relies on others to make up for his own irresponsibility, or turns a deaf ear to the needy? They tell me that lots of “average Joes” take advantage of Wal-Mart’s no-questions-asked return policy by buying an item, using it once, then returning it for a full refund. Why rent, when you can cheat? Aren’t these also “treasures gained by wickedness?”

Solomon says that such treasures “do not profit.” The meaning of those words lies in the second half of the verse: “righteousness delivers from death.” Think Judgment Day, for God “has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17.31). And again, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9.27). (Just a thought – what if your appointment came up the day after you cheated Wal-Mart?) Wealth gained unjustly may line our pockets, but it doesn’t profit our souls, foster our growth in grace, or produce righteousness in our lives. And at the end of the day, only “righteousness delivers from death.”

This proverb is both a stern warning and a strong encouragement. On the one hand: “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit.” So it is that the Pastor James warned the rich of his day. By cheating their workers they had fattened themselves like so many Thanksgiving turkeys for “a day of slaughter” (James 5.1-6). But the proverb is also a strong encouragement to use all that God has given us for His glory: “Righteousness delivers from death.” So it is that when a well-to-do young man asked what he lacked to “inherit eternal life,” Jesus told him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19.21).

No one gets to heaven by giving alms, only by heeding the invitation of Christ, to “come, follow me.” But nothing says more about how we follow Christ than how we get, and how we use, our money. You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Dr. Richard Wells