Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book of Virtues # 2 - "The Ant and the Grasshopper"

About five hundred years before Christ, legend has it that there lived a Bulgarian man named Aesop.  Enslaved to a wealthy owner on the island of Samos, his job was to take care of his master’s children.  Aesop became famous for his stories which all conveyed morals for his pupils.  Perhaps one of his most well-known fables was The Grasshopper and the Ants:

In a field one summer's day a grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content.  A group of ants walked by, grunting as they struggled to carry plump kernels of corn.

"Where are you going with those heavy things?" asked the grasshopper.

Without stopping, the first ant replied, "To our ant hill.  This is the third kernel I've delivered today."

"Why not come and sing with me," teased the grasshopper, "instead of working so hard?"

"We are helping to store food for the winter," said the ant, "and think you should do the same."

"Winter is far away and it is a glorious day to play," sang the grasshopper.

But the ants went on their way and continued their hard work.

The weather soon turned cold.  All the food lying in the field was covered with a thick white blanket of snow that even the grasshopper could not dig through.  Soon the grasshopper found itself dying of hunger.

He staggered to the ants' hill and saw them handing out corn from the stores they had collected in the summer.  He begged them for something to eat.

"What!" cried the ants in surprise, "haven't you stored anything away for the winter?  What in the world were you doing all last summer?"

"I didn't have time to store any food," complained the grasshopper; "I was so busy playing music that before I knew it the summer was gone."

The ants shook their heads in disgust, turned their backs on the grasshopper and went on with their work.[i]

            The grasshopper learned a very difficult lesson, and paid for it with his life.  The writers of the book of Proverbs hoped to pass on some wisdom to their readers, so they would be spared such hardship.  Many of the sayings in this book of virtues concern the need to work hard, and avoid laziness.  Chapter 6, verses 6 through 11 says:

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest.
How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
    When will you get up from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
    and scarcity like an armed man.[ii]

            Certainly, there is a time to play just as there is a time to work.  Neither Aesop nor the Bible come down hard against recreation—but there is “a season for every activity under the heavens (Ecclesiastes 3:1).”  Not long ago, I enjoyed a beautiful vacation—a much needed rest.  But I found that I needed to work extra hard just before going away, to prepare people for my absence, and once I got home I had to play catch-up.  In truth, things can’t go undone—they can only be rescheduled.  Yes, there is a time to take a break and enjoy life, but the Bible warns against laziness.  School students have to return after summer is over, and resume their studies.  Farmers who take the winter months easy need to work extra hard the remaining nine months.  A the ants put their noses to the grindstone, so the book of Proverbs calls us to diligent work.

            Proverbs 10:4-5, 26 says, “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth. He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son…. As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so are sluggards to those who send them.”  Likewise, Proverbs 12 says, “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense…. Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labor…. The lazy do not roast any game, but the diligent feed on the riches of the hunt (vv. 11, 24, 27).”  Certainly, this book of virtues encourages diligence, prudence, and hard work.

            I know some people who say, “I’ve done my time.  I’ve raised my kids, and worked fifty years, and now I’m retired.”  As a result, they put their feet up, get lazy, and that’s when old age really sets in.  Did you know that retirement isn’t a biblical concept?  No—it’s a Western invention that’s only a couple hundred years old.  So how did retirement get invented, anyway?  It used to be that if you were alive, you worked.  In the U.S, in the mid-1800s, public servants and soldiers were offered pensions, and by the 1920s, pensions were offered by many companies, to support employees in their older years—mostly beginning at age 65.  In 1935, the Social Security Act was passed, beginning retirement benefits at 65.  But the life expectancy of the average American man was only 58 at the time![iii]  Now, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.8 years[iv]—leaving over thirteen years from retirement to death to sit back and collect. 

            Now, there’s nothing wrong with collecting Social Security, for those who paid into it.  But what is wrong is retiring from life, once you’ve retired from your full-time job.  In my experience, it’s once a person retires, not from their job, but from life, that they really begin to get old.  Hard work and diligence keep you young—and that’s a fact!  Many seniors retire from service at their church, too, saying, “I kept kids in the nursery or taught Sunday school for years—now it’s somebody else’s turn.”  First, let me suggest that those kids may have made you feel old when you were younger, but now, spending time with them may keep you young.  Second, I must point out that God has no retirement plan here on this earth—God’s retirement plan is called Heaven!  Abraham and Sarah were nearly 100 years old when God called them to start a family.  God didn’t call Moses to lead Israel til he was 80, and he did that for the next forty years!  So unless you’re in the grave, God’s not done with you yet.  Just like the aging heroes of the Bible, God is calling you to the work!

            Aesop told another fable about the value of work:

A farmer, being at death’s door, and desiring to impart to his sons a secret of much moment, called them round him and said, “my sons, I am shortly about to die.  I would have you know, therefore, that in my vineyard there lies a hidden treasure.  Dig, and you will find it.”  As soon as their father was dead, the sons took spade and fork and turned up the soil of the vineyard over and over again, in their search for the treasure which they supposed to lie buried there.  They found none, however: but the vines, after so thorough a digging, produced a crop such as had never before been seen.  There is no treasure without toil.[v] 

            In the same way, God calls every believer to unearth the treasure of God’s kingdom—but there’s work to be done if we’re to see it. In Matthew 9:37-38, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” The Bible, God’s book of virtues, calls us to labor til the Master comes.  And until He comes, He invites you to the work.

[i] “The Grasshopper and the Ants”  July 30, 2018.
[ii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.
[iii] Laskow, Sarah.  “How Retirement Was Invented: The earliest schemes for financial support in old age were pegged to life expectancy.”  The Atlantic.  October 24, 2014.  July 30, 2018.
[iv] Donnelly, Grace.  “Here’s Why Life Expectancy in the US Dropped Again This Year.”  Fortune.  Feb 9, 2018.  July 30, 2018.
[v] Bennett, William J.  The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.  Simon & Schuster: New York.  1993.  Pg. 370.

Monday, August 20, 2018

"Book of Virtues"

            Recently, I came across some bits of wisdom offered as advice by children:

  • ·         Never trust a dog to watch your food. - Patrick, age 10
  • ·         When your dad is mad and asks you, “Do I look stupid?” don't answer him. - Michael, 14
  • ·         Never tell your mom her diet's not working. - Michael, 14
  • ·         Stay away from prunes. - Randy, 9
  • ·         Never hold a dust buster and a cat at the same time. - Kyoyo, 9
  • ·         You can't hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk. - Armir, 9
  • ·         If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse. - Naomi, 15
  • ·         Felt markers are not good to use as lipstick. - Lauren, 9
  • ·         Don't pick on your sister when she's holding a baseball bat. - Joel, 10
  • ·         Never try to baptize a cat. - Eileen, 8[i]

Every generation needs a little wisdom.  Sometimes kids can offer wisdom to parents, but generally wisdom is a gift from the older generation to the younger.  This can come in pithy sayings, or it can come in stories that are packed with hidden meaning and moral lessons.  In 1993, Simon & Schuster published The Book of Virtues, a collection of American history, fables, poems, and moral tales from around the world.  Editor William J. Bennett begins his book by saying:

Moral education—the training of heart and mind toward the
good—involves many things. It involves rules and precepts—the dos and
don’ts of life with others—as well as explicit instruction, exhortation, and
training. Moral education must provide training in good habits. Aristotle
wrote that good habits formed at youth make all the difference. And moral
education must affirm the central importance of moral example. It has been
said that there is nothing more influential, more determinant, in a child’s life
than the moral power of quiet example. For children to take morality seriously
they must be in the presence of adults who take morality seriously. And with
their own eyes they must see adults take morality seriously.

Along with precept, habit, and example, there is also the need for what we
might call moral literacy. The stories, poems, essays, and other writing
presented here are intended to help children achieve this moral literacy. The
purpose of this book is to show parents, teachers, students, and children what
the virtues look like, what they are in practice, how to recognize them, and
how they work.

This book, then, is a “how to” book for moral literacy.[ii]

            Bennett’s book was so popular that a companion piece, titled The Children’s Book of Virtues, was published two years later.  Then in 1997, Bennet published The Book of Virtues for Young People.  These resulted in a children’s animated TV show, Adventures from the Book of Virtues, which lasted three seasons.  In this show, a buffalo named Aristotle teaches moral lessons through stories.  While stories like how Robin Hood met Little John can teach kids about friendship, and Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” can teach responsibility, and while Bennett’s books did a great job distilling wisdom from history and fables, there’s another Book of Virtues that’s much more ancient—and its Author still has lessons to teach.

            You might call The Bible the original Book of Virtues.  Its pages contain history, fables, poetry, prophecy, law, and these pithy things we call proverbs.  In fact, the Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings from several authors.  Much as Poor Richard’s Almanack (published by Benjamin Franklin, 1732-1758) was a source of concise wisdom for Americans, the Book of Proverbs provided Israel with wisdom sayings for everything from raising to children to business to marriage.  Though King Solomon is often cited as the writer of Proverbs, the book also contains writings from authors such as Agur, King Lemuel, and others.  Though Proverbs was begun in Solomon’s time, it was likely not complete for another two or three centuries.

            Primarily, the book of Proverbs is about wisdom.  It exalts virtues like hard work, the fear of God, friendship, humility, positive speech, contentment, patience, and frugality.  Though, typical for the Patriarchal time of its writing, Solomon addresses the book to “my son (1:10)”, its principles can easily be applied to everyone, regardless of gender.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be examining the themes of Proverbs.  We’ll see how the Bible is just as true for us today as a Book of Virtues as it was when Solomon first put pen to paper.

            The first chapter of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a woman calling out in the street.  Either as a mother or as a pure lover, this woman Wisdom beckons Solomon’s son to follow.  Chapter 1, verses 20-23 says:

Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,
    she raises her voice in the public square;
on top of the wall she cries out,
    at the city gate she makes her speech:
“How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?
    How long will mockers delight in mockery
    and fools hate knowledge?
Repent at my rebuke!
    Then I will pour out my thoughts to you,
    I will make known to you my teachings.[iii]

            Much as woman calls her beloved to right living, Wisdom implores believers to follow her ways.  In Chapter 8, verses 22-32, Wisdom, personified as Chokmah in Hebrew or Sophia in the Septuagint Greek, is so ancient that she was present with God in the beginning: 

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
    before his deeds of old;
23 I was formed long ages ago,
    at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
    when there were no springs overflowing with water;
25 before the mountains were settled in place,
    before the hills, I was given birth,
26 before he made the world or its fields
    or any of the dust of the earth.
27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
28 when he established the clouds above
    and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
29 when he gave the sea its boundary
    so the waters would not overstep his command,
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
30     Then I was constantly at his side.
I was filled with delight day after day,
    rejoicing always in his presence,
31 rejoicing in his whole world
    and delighting in mankind.
32 “Now then, my children, listen to me;
    blessed are those who keep my ways.

            There’s a story about a wise woman who found a precious stone in a stream while traveling in the mountains.

The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me something more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.[iv]

            Just as Wisdom called to Solomon in his day, she beckons you even now, promising a life of blessing.  She promises you something worth much more than jewels or gold.  As we embark on this journey through the Book of Proverbs together, I invite you to read that book on your own.  Then consider how Proverbs, and the Bible itself, can be a Book of Virtues to that speaks to your heart.

[i] “Words of Wisdom from Children.”  July 24, 2018.
[ii] Bennett,William J., editor.  The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.  Simon & Schuster: New York.  1993.  Pg. 11.
[iii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[iv] Author unknown

Monday, August 13, 2018

"I'm a Little Teapot"

            I discovered Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers when I was a teenager.  I love his songs because, like much American country music, it reflects the life of average people.  In a poem called “Finch’s Complaint,” he tells the story of declining economy and the loss of income and lifestyle:

Tom Finch turned to the waitress and said, “Bring me another Alpine.
I’ll have one more before I go to tell Marie the news.
Well boys, we’re for it this time.  The plant is closed for good.
Regan broke his promise, and we’re through.
We’re working men with no work left to do.

I always thought I’d have a boat, just like my dad before me.
You don’t get rich, but with the boats you could always make do.
But the boats gave way to trawlers, and packing turned to meal.
Now that’s all gone, and we’re all for the dole.
And the thought of that puts irons in my soul.”

Tom Finch stood up and said good-bye with handshakes all around.
Faces he’d grown up among, now with their eyes cast down.
Slow foot along familiar road to the hills above the harbor.
With a passing thought, “Now all this is through
And I wonder how Marie will take the news.”

The house had been so much of her, though it had hardly been a year.
She’s done his father’s house so proud, and held it all so dear.
But there was hot tea on the table when Tom came through the door.
And before he spoke, she smiled and said,
“I know the plant is gone.  Now how soon do we go?”

“We won’t take a cent.  They can stuff all their money.  We’ve put a little by.
And thank God we’ve got no kids as yet, or I think I’d want to die.
We Finches have been in this part of the world for near 200 years!
But I guess it’s seen the last of us.  \
Come on, Marie, we’re going to Toronto.”

            Many of us can identify with Stan Rogers’ words.  Perhaps you’ve been overlooked, outsourced, discarded, or discredited.  Nothing can make you angrier than losing your resources, losing your home, losing your support base.  In the third chapter of the fourth gospel, we read about Jesus’ cousin John, who found his career in decline.  Having gathered quite a following, John soon found his disciples deserting him and following Jesus instead.  Don’t underestimate the potential for jealousy and despair that could have been in John’s heart as he dealt with his own waning popularity.  Yet, instead of reacting with anger, bitterness, or indignation, John’s response seems very well-adjusted.  He says he’s happy for Jesus’ success, and adds, “He must become greater; I must become less (John 3:30 NIV).”  I believe he could respond like this because John understood how to handle his anger, and perhaps also the preceding emotion of fear.

            Marie Finch also understood how to handle her husband Tom’s potential anger—she put on a pot of tea.  Like so many Canadian and British people, they understood the magic that’s in a little teapot.  Do you remember that old kid's song, "I'm a Little Teapot?"  It's a simple song, but embedded within its words are a hidden message (I'm serious) for dealing with anger.

I'm a little teapot, short and stout.
Fist, Don't take yourself too seriously. Be able to see yourself in a silly image.
Second, realize your potential for boiling over.

Here is my handle, here is my spout.
There are two different ways that I can choose to deal with anger. Either I can get a handle on it, or I can spout off. It's up to me which I will choose.

When I get all steamed up, hear me shout
This, of course, is referring to the teapot's whistle. When you get steaming mad, do you whine? Do you shout? Do you cry? According to the song, the teapot shouts something that's pretty useful for people who have a tendency to get overly angry:

"Tip me over and pour me out!"
What is being poured out? Me. Myself. My ego. That's what's being poured out of the teapot. When I make tea, I often forget the pot and let it boil over, spilling out of the top and making a mess. But here, the teapot realizes that it will not boil over if "Me" is poured out. If I pour my ego out before God, then there's no more Me left to get angry.

Jesus’ cousin John would have done well if he were Canadian or British, because of course he would have had this thing called a little teapot to keep him from getting so upset because Jesus was successful, and he was losing popularity.  Instead, he had something even better.  He had God’s Holy Spirit to teach him what no children’s song ever could.  And the good news is that if you’re a Christian, you also have the Holy Spirit to remind you not to take yourself too seriously, to help you get a handle on things so that you don’t spout off.  Jesus has given you the same Spirit to tip you over and help you pour out your ego, vanity and pride, and help you say, as John, “He must become greater; I must become less.”  This is the whole of the Christian life.  It will help you get along better with family, friends, coworkers, spouses, enemies, people at church, and even people who are getting more attention than you.  God showed it to me one day during my quiet time—and I give it to you, because I love you.

Monday, August 6, 2018

"Sneaking Into Heaven"

Years ago, my friend Robbie died and went to Heaven.  Now, when Christians die, we presume they go to heaven.  But pastors are careful about the words we choose, because we understand that you can’t preach an unbeliever into Heaven.  Neither should we deceive grieving family members by giving them false hope that an unbeliever has gone to Glory.  At the same time, you can’t presume that just because a person was a church member, they go to heaven when they die.  Affiliation and salvation are two different things, and a person’s eternal destiny is between them and God.  But I can say that Ronnie went to Heaven, because he told me so.  You see, unlike most people, Ronnie didn’t stay dead.  He came back to tell the tale.  He said, “They sent me back because I was trying to sneak in the back way.”

            Seriously, though, I was with Ronnie in the hospital, and I prayed with him before he went into the operating room.  Sometime after he died on that table, I listened as he told me all about heaven’s lights, meeting an angel, and seeing family and friends who had gone before.  But obviously it wasn’t his time, because he came back.  I’ve seen the medical records to prove it.  Robbie actually died, and had an experience of Heaven that turned around the rest of his life on earth.  But his story makes me wonder…

            Did you ever try to sneak into somewhere you weren’t supposed to be?  People do this when they don’t want to pay admission, or when they aren’t dressed for the occasion or something.  I think most people don’t want to pay the price to go to heaven.  I don’t mean being a good person—there are lots of good people in this world.  I mean—you know—dying.  It’s like Kenney Chesney sang, “Everybody want to go to heaven, but nobody want to go now.”[i]

            I can think of only two people who got to go to Heaven without paying the price of admission.  In one sentence, Genesis 5:24[ii] tells the story of a man named Enoch whose earthly relationship with God transformed his eternity.  “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.”  Hebrews 11:5 expands on this story, saying, “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.” 

Similarly, Elijah never died, but was taken up to be with the Lord.  2 Kings 2:11 says, “As [Elijah and Elisha] were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”  Of all the people in the Bible, these two had such a relationship with God while they were on earth that God blessed them to be able to bypass death and go straight to Heaven.

Some have seen Heaven in dreams and visions.  The prophet Isaiah writes about seeing the Lord “high and exalted, seated on a throne (Isaiah 6:1).”  Likewise, the entire book of Revelation is John’s account of the heavenly vision God gave him on the Island of Patmos.  Similarly, Paul writes (humbly, about himself): 

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).”

            So, the people who snuck into Heaven without dying include just two (Enoch and Elijah) who went there physically, and a handful who have seen Heaven in visions without tasting death.  Sadly, most people have to die in order to find out what Glory is like.  And only a few (like Robbie) have come back to tell us about it.  But there is a group of people who will, in the future, enter God’s presence without dying.

            When Paul wrote to the church of Thessalonica, he wanted to give them encouragement about the saints who had already died, and the future for all believers.  Paul writes:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).

            The Greek word for this “coming” or “presence” of Christ is Parousia.  Certainly this word could apply to Jesus’ first arrival on earth, but it more often refers to the Second Coming.   When Jesus returns, previous generations of Christians will be resurrected just as He was, and will ascend just as He ascended.  Then, a split second later, Jesus’ people who are still alive, without needing to die, will be join them in the air.  If that happens in our own time, we get to sneak into heaven.  We won’t have to die, but we’ll be transformed[iii] and resurrected just like Jesus, without ever tasting death.  Maybe much the same as Enoch and Elijah.  You’ll be able to fly right into Heaven! 

            Now, I want to step back for a minute from that day in the future, whether you breathe your last or never die, and you get to enter Heaven.  Jesus’ message was not, “Just wait and you’ll get to Heaven,” but “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15)!”  You might need to wait to go to a place called Heaven, but God’s reign within you is here and now, when you seek Him.  As in the words of the old song, “Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul / when at the cross the Savior made me whole / My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day / Heaven came down and glory filled my soul!”[iv]  The good news isn’t that you might sneak into Heaven, but that Heaven can sneak into you!  This means a turnaround of thoughts and actions.  My friend Robbie had a turnaround after he got back from Heaven—but you can have a story far greater than his if you repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near.  Make a change before you die, and let heaven sneak into you.

[i] Chesney, Kenney.  “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.”  Album: “Lucky Old Sun.”  2008.  March 6, 2018.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[iii] 1 Corinthians 15
[iv] Peterson, John W.  “O, What a Wonderful, Wonderful Day!”  © Copyright 1961, renewed 1989 by John W. Peterson Music Company.  March 6, 2018.