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

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