Archive for May 2008

Face the Dwarfs

May 30, 2008

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Prov 1.7)

Here is the theme of Proverbs, and one of the great themes of the Old Testament.  Almost these exact words occur twice more in Proverbs itself (9.10; 15.33), and in Job (28.28) and the Psalms (111.10) as well.  And the phrase, “the fear of the Lord,” appears more than 100 times from Genesis to Malachi.

To many modern ears, “the fear of the Lord” sounds strange, archaic, maybe even a little depressing-like something from the dark superstitions of cavemen.  We “believe” in God, of course.  We might even say we love God, worship God, celebrate God.  But to “fear God” is so . . . well . . . so “Old Testament.”  It’s a turn off to lots of folk.

Yet “the fear of the Lord” is the very stuff of belief and unbelief.  In the Psalms we read, “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Ps. 36.1).  On the positive side, we recall that Cornelius the Roman centurion (a Gentile convert to Judaism) was “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10.2).  And again, preaching to other Gentiles in the home of Cornelius, Peter spoke of how his own eyes had been opened to see “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10.34, 35).

What then is this “the fear of the Lord?”  First of all, it’s not anxiety, dread, terror, foreboding-the kind of trembling anticipation that makes little boys whistle as they walk through a cemetery.  Nor is it slavishness-the servile, cowering fear of making a mistake, like a woman who “submits” to her husband because she fears for her safety (see 1 Pet. 3.6).  Stephen Charnock, a 17th century Puritan, once observed that such fear is really a form of hatred.  The “spirit of bondage,” he said, “only eyes [God] as a judge,” not as “a Father.”  And if they could, those who serve God only by “the whip and the cudgel” would gladly banish “the master that commands them to another world!” (On the Existence and Attributes of God, 1:98).  We all understand, I think.

The fear of the Lord” stands at the other end of the universe.  It speaks of adoration, worship, reverence-deep respect “tinged with awe,” as someone has said-glad submission to the greatness of God, sincerely seeking the glory of God.  The fear of the Lord is the proper response of who we are to Who He is.  “There is none like you, O Lord,” wrote the prophet Jeremiah, “you are great, and your name is great in might.  Who would not fear you, O King of the nations?  For this is your due” (Jer. 10.6, 7).

But what is it to say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?”  Stephen Charnock again.  Among many other things, the fear of the Lord teaches us “not to fear the pride and force of man.”  When we “glorify His strength,” Charnock said, whom shall we fear?  “Who would tremble at the threats of a dwarf, that hath a mighty and watchful giant for his guard?” (2.106).  Fear the Lord; face the dwarfs.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

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A Word Fitly Spoken

May 23, 2008

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (Prov 25.11)

O the power of words!  Do you remember the children’s rhyme?

Sticks and stones may break my bones,

But words will never hurt me.

As children we wanted desperately to believe that “words will never hurt.”  But they can, and they do, and they have.  Words have power.  James, the noble pastor, writes a whole chapter about that power: “we all stumble in many ways,” he says, “and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect [mature, complete] man, able also to bridle the whole body.”  We control horses with bridles, and use a rudder to steer a ship, so we must control our lives by controlling our tongues (James 3.1-5).  Scripture has much to say about the power of words-and much of it, as in the book of James, takes the form of warning.  But here and there, as here in this Proverb, the Lord reminds us that words also have enormous power for good.  As Solomon says in another place, “Death and life“–both of them–“are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18.21).

Solomon makes the point by painting a picture for us.  Like “apples of gold in settings of silver,” he says, is “a word fitly spoken.”  The Hebrew words could signify actual fruit–beautiful, luscious fruit, and, like a cake that looks too good to cut, presented to please the eye.  That’s how Martin Luther translated the words: “golden apples in silver baskets.”  The words could just as well signify a brooch or a ring-like an exquisite Black Hills gold creation that adorns the jeweled beauty of grapes and vines with just the right setting, the way the perfect frame turns a portrait into a masterpiece.

In the same way, “a word fitly spoken“-the right word, spoken in the right way, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person(s)–“a word fitly spoken” brings beauty to everyday life.  “A word fitly spoken” is the “soft answer” that defuses a tense, angry meeting (Prov. 15.1).  It is a thoughtful response rather than an outburst (Prov. 15.28).  It is the “wound of a friend” who cares enough to confront (Prov. 27.6).  It is a gracious word, “good for building up, as fits the occasion” (Eph. 4.29).

And it is “the word of Christ” dwelling in us “richly,” enabling us to teach and admonish one another “in all wisdom” (Col. 3.16).  The “word fitly spoken” doesn’t come from sensitivity training or Dale Carnegie courses.  No, we impart godly things, Paul says, “in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2.13).  So, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”  Immerse yourself in God’s Word.  Let His truth, His holiness, His goodness, and His love, take root in the garden of your soul.  And ask Him for wisdom to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4.15)–the right word, the right way, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person(s)–for the sake of Christ.  Ask Him for grace to bring beauty to life every day.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Think of Demas

May 18, 2008

“Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys” (Prov 18.9).

To be perfectly frank, many of us will have a hard time believing what Solomon says here.  Or at least taking it to heart.  We are busier than ever these days, and we hear all the time that workaholism is a serious social dysfunction.  Many of us reading these words will think, “My Blackberry is full, I’m burning the candle at both ends, I meet myself coming and going–what on earth does this proverb mean to me?”  At the same time, while no one praises sloth, we don’t usually make a big deal out of it either.  We learn to work around lazy people, and write off their self-destructive behavior as just that.  After all, it’s their wasted time, their wasted opportunity, their wasted life.  Their loss.  These are reasonable reactions to Solomon here–but they miss his point entirely.

The point of this proverb centers on the word Solomon uses for “work.”  The Hebrew term (melā’kāh) originally referred to a “commission” (an assignment, a charge) from someone else.  (The Hebrew word for “messenger” is māl’āk.)  In time, the word would come to be used for any “occupation,” but always carrying with it that sense of mission or commission.  So in this proverb, Solomon seems to have in mind not just the classic couch potato who makes laziness a sport, but the twelve-cylindered success with no time or energy left to do what God really wants him to do.  To put it bluntly, you can be a workaholic, and still be slack in your “work.”

A good question to ask right now is, “what is my ‘work?'”  What does God want me to do and to be?  Surely, He wants you to be a godly man or woman, a godly husband or wife, a godly father or mother, a godly young person.  Beyond that, God has gifted you as a believer to serve Him, and He has placed you where you are to make a difference for Christ and the gospel.  You have “work” to do.  What is it?  Are you faithful to it?

If not, says Solomon, you are “brother to him who destroys.”  It will take longer, of course, but simple decay will destroy a house as surely as a tornado (and the spectacle will be more painful to watch!).  So it is with the slacker.  Think of Demas.  Paul mentions him three times in his letters.  The first two times, he is ministering as a “fellow worker” with Paul, imprisoned in Rome (Col. 4.9; Phlm 23).  But near the end of his life-imprisoned yet again in Rome–Paul sadly reports to Timothy that “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Tim. 4.10).  How did this happen?  Did Demas wake up one day and decide out of the blue to abandon Paul?  We know better.  Demas drifted away– by neglect, not design–but it was desertion all the same.

Modern people prefer positive messages–so instead of “faithless,” we feel better saying that someone’s “not living up to his or her potential.” But Scripture tells us the uncomfortable truth without the comforting spin-neglect “destroys.”  So think of your walk with God.  Think of you marriage.  Think of your children.  Think of your responsibilities as a Christian.  And think of Demas.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

A Gracious Woman

May 12, 2008

A gracious woman gets honor, and violent men get riches (Prov. 11.16).

Almost all ancient cultures held womanhood in contempt.  There were apparent exceptions, of course-princesses and queens-woman of privilege or even renown.  But even the privileged were often kept merely as ornaments, or kept in harems for sexual use (read the story of Esther); and in everyday society, women had no place at all except as movable property, chattel. Little better off than slaves.  For many millions of women in many parts of the world, the situation has not improved.  Think of a woman under Islamic shari’a law, for example, forbidden to go to school or appear in public without a male relative, and subject to beatings for displeasing her husband.  For centuries, women have borne the brunt of man’s “inhumanity to man.”

But not in the Word of God.

In this little proverb, Solomon draws out a comparison between men and women that would take the breath away from his peers in Egypt or Mesopotamia.  He begins by describing the “Proverbs 31” woman in a single sentence: “A gracious woman gets honor.”  Her “gracious” life adorns the fear of the Lord.  And like flowers in a room, she fills her home and her world with the fragrance of gentleness, goodness, beauty, and love.  “She looks well to the ways of her household” in a thousand different ways–and her “children rise up and call her blessed, her husband also, and he praises her,” for “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Prov. 31.27-30).

On the other hand, “violent men get riches.”  Picture here the hard-driving, type-A type, going forth conquering and to conquer.  He grabs, and he gets what he’s grabbing for-houses and lands, cars and boats, and maybe his very own parking space.  And maybe a gold watch (or a golden parachute) when he retires.  Sounds a lot like “success.”

Which is exactly what women have heard now for a whole generation.  “Boardrooms and corner offices are where it’s at, baby–so get out of the house and crack a few glass ceilings.”  Thus in a devastating irony, modern culture holds womanhood in contempt every bit as much as ancient Egyptians or the Taliban, just with a more refined brutality.

Later in Proverbs, Solomon will declare that “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” (Prov. 22.1).  And he makes the same point here in this remarkable little comparison.  And in the words of Franz Delitzsch, the great Messianic Jewish scholar, Solomon’s point is this–that the “gracious woman” makes “greater conquests” than the hard-driving success story, for she “obtains a higher good” than “only riches.”

Today we honor “gracious women.”  And in doing so, we remind ourselves of the “higher good,” for now and forever.  Happy Mother’s Day.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Just Say “No”?

May 1, 2008

Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of the evil.
Avoid it, do not go on it;
turn away from it and pass on. (Prov 4.14, 15)

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”  Ever felt that way?  Truth be told, most of us probably feel that way about something right now, for “temptation” is a force to be reckoned with.  Something entices us, allures us, attracts us, seduces us – in the wrong direction.  So, psychologically, temptation tears us in half.  We desperately want what we shouldn’t have.  We hope to avoid even while we long to indulge.  And we all face it.

This little proverb offers us a way through the struggle.  At first glance, Solomon sounds almost like an ancient version of the old “Just Say No” drug campaign.  As if to say, “Are you tempted?  Well, just don’t give in!”  But if it were that easy, would we even call it “temptation”?  Anyone can (or at least I can) “just say no” to, say, wrestling alligators.  But can we “just say no” to a real temptation?  And is that what Solomon is telling us to do?  In a word, “no” – rather he is establishing principles for dealing with temptation.  One principle is that resisting temptation begins – long before a temptation actually arises – with a clear-headed recognition of the ugliness, the repulsiveness, the shamefulness of sin, and the bitter fruit of indulging it.  Satan, the “Tempter” (Mt. 4.3), is “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8.44).  He makes his career of stealing, killing, and destroying by false advertisement.  Solomon warns us not to get taken in.  Recognize “the way of the evil” for what it really is, and count the cost of going that way.

Another principle is that resisting temptation requires planning, preparation, forethought.  Notice how Solomon urges us – five times in five different ways – to avoid the way of evil in the first place: “Do not enter . . . do not walk in . . . avoid . . . turn away . . . pass on.”  We prepare to resist temptation by recognizing and admitting our vulnerabilities.  It may not be alligator wrestling (it isn’t, is it?), but we are all sinners and we are all susceptible to temptations of some sort.  What are yours?  Be honest about them, and steer clear of harm’s way, the “way of the evil,” where your weakness puts you at risk.

Years ago, my son Paul and I hiked a long loop trail in northern Utah.  It was late spring and the trail was clear.  That is until, near the end of the loop, we came upon a snowfield blocking our path, literally at the edge of a cliff (I am not making this up!).  Backtracking was no option; darkness would catch us.  So there we were.  To our right, up the side of the mountain – boulders, trees, thick underbrush, and lots of snow.  To our left – a sheer precipice and a few hundred feet of airspace.  Straight ahead – the trail, covered in snow, three feet from the edge.  But there is really no drama to this story – we took the boulders and the underbrush.  Why would I take a “way” where a single misstep, a moment’s distraction, a nanosecond of inattention could cost me my life or my son’s life?

Yet Christians do it everyday.  Don’t be among them, dear people.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells