Monday, September 17, 2018

Book of Virtues # 5 - "Potty Mouth"

            Just like our society has written laws, we also have unwritten rules.  We have a lot of them, when it comes to cussing, cursing or swearing, or having a “potty mouth” (depending on where you’re from).  Some rules are about who you can cuss in front of.  For instance, it used to be that you didn’t cuss if women or children were around.  This was so you didn’t corrupt them.  And if you were a child, you definitely didn’t cuss in front of the teacher, or grandma.  This was so you didn’t get in trouble.  And, no matter who you are, you sure don’t cuss in front of the preacher, or at church—because, you know, it’s only then that God can hear.  Then there are unspoken rules about certain people get a free pass to cuss—like mechanics and sailors.  But what if you’re my brother, and you’re both a preacher and a sailor?  (I guess he’s really confused!)  And then there are secret rules about special exemptions from the cussing clause.  Like it’s okay to cuss if you refer to somebody else and make “air quotes.”  Or if you spell it.  Or if, in your spelling, you make reference to sports equipment, like hockey sticks.

            Sometimes these rules about cussing seem arbitrary.  Why, for example, can you use a word like “doo-doo,” but not its alternative?  According to Oxford Dictionaries, it all comes from a class distinction in England.  After the Norman Conquest, peasants who continued to speak an Old English dialect that was heavily influenced, were looked down upon by the nobles who spoke Old French, which was influenced by Latin.  The nobles believed that the Germanic-based language was “vulgar” (which means “of the crowd”).  In English, our offensive language mainly comes from that Germanic base, which is considered vulgar because it’s the language of the common people.  It has nothing to do with obscenity, and everything to do with cultural snobbery.[i]

            Christians have a long history of saying that it’s a sin to cuss—but when it comes to foul language, it’s important to know what the Bible does and doesn’t say.  The Bible gives us many guidelines for appropriate speech—but not appropriate language, if that makes sense.  Keep in mind that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written mainly in Greek—and the writers couldn’t have cared about English, because as a language it didn’t yet exist.  So whether you say “poo-poo” or its alternative is not even a consideration for Biblical writers.  It’s not so much whether your words come from a Germanic or French background.  It’s what comes out of your heart. 

            Proverbs emphasizes not the avoidance of certain words, but clean speech, as opposed to perversity.  Proverbs 4:24[ii] says, “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.”  Proverbs 10:32 says, The lips of the righteous know what finds favor, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.”  In other words, good people know how to use their language to bless people, help people, and honor people, but wicked people use twisted speech.  The word “perverse” means to be turned away from what is right and good.  So the interest here is in our speech being straightforward, honest, and honorable—as opposed to corrupt, which speaks of rottenness, decay, and disease.  This is the difference between cussing and cursing.  Cussing is when English-speakers choose Germanic-based words.  Cursing is when we use speech that is wicked and perverse, that does real damage.  There are several categories of corrupt speech, including:

            Lying.  Proverbs 10:18 says, Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool.”  This is not only dishonesty about another person, but dishonesty about how you feel.  God wants integrity, which means our feelings and speech need to match one another.  Proverbs 12:19, 22 says, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment…The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.”  Proverbs 19:9 says, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will perish.”  God isn’t just concerned with making sure you are honest with yourself—God wants us to be honest with each other, and about each other.  Even for those who think they can get away with dishonesty, life has a way of bringing truth and its consequences to those who deceive.

            Gossip.  Not everybody who gossips is a liar.  Sometimes gossip is true—but just because it’s true, that doesn’t mean it needs to be told.  Proverbs 11:13 says, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.”   Bible teacher Greg Laurie suggests that before you spread gossip, you need to T.H.I.N.K.  Ask yourself if what you’re about to say is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind.  If not, then keep it to yourself.[iii]

                Mocking.  Proverbs 14:6 says, The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.”  Mocking is when we use our words to tear other people down.  It’s like the emotional bully who calls names because he can’t use rational language.  Typically, mocking uses words we generally consider offensive to a person’s ethnic, cultural, sexual, or gender identity.  The opposite of mocking, of course, is knowledge and discernment.

            Troublemaking.  Strange as it may seem, sometimes lying, gossiping, and mocking are not really intended to harm people—they just somehow do.  But troublemaking is when you intentionally are trying to harm another person.  Proverbs 6:12-15 talks about, “A troublemaker and a villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks maliciously with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict. Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.”  Notice how the troublemaker uses not just his speech, but his whole demeanor, to stir the pot?  Sometimes he can say one thing with his mouth, and another with his body language—masking his culpability with intentional deceit.

            Instead of these things, Proverbs advises that we use our speech thoughtfully and respectfully, with wisdom and love.  Proverbs 16:24 says, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”  Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” When we remember this, we become aware that our speech should be used to heal, and never to hurt.  We also remember that if our words offend people, even if it’s because they come from Germanic instead of French roots—then maybe we need to rethink our word choices in front of those people.   

            Author Wayne Dyer points out that when you squeeze an orange, orange juice comes out.  Not grapefruit juice or apple juice—because what comes out is what’s inside.[iv]  In the New Testament, Jesus says, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6:45).”  When life puts pressure on you, what comes out is what’s inside—I pray that your words will build up, and not tear down, and that they’ll be filled with love and virtue.

[i] “Swear words, etymology, and the history of English.”  Oxford Dictionaries.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[iii] Laurie, Greg.  “T.H.I.N.K.”  August 20, 2018.
[iv] Dyer, Wayne.  “Why the inside Matters.”  August 20, 2018.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Book of Virtues # 4 - "To Bark and Bite"

            People argue over the dumbest things.  Like, once I heard of two people arguing over what was the color of the swimsuit in “The Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”  (Was the bikini yellow, or were the polka dots?)  Or whether “Home Alone” and “Die Hard” count as Christmas movies.  Or whether cereal counts as soup.[i]  But most of our arguments are over much more important things.
            Believe it or not, I’ve had people who took issues with things I’ve said from the pulpit.  But, to be honest, I think that some of the sermons that people took issues with were arguably my best sermons ever.  There was the time I wanted people to get just as offended at what Jesus had to say about “my body is real food and my blood is real drink (John 6:55),” so I titled the sermon, “Flesh Chompers and Blood Guzzlers.”  Some people though that was too much—but, because it offended them, I felt like my job was done, because they understood just how much Jesus’ audience was offended.  Then there was the sermon where a young mother got mad at me because she had to explain to her kid what human trafficking and prostitution were, after the service.  I thought that was good that they learn it at church and from their parents, rather than at school.  Then there was the time I preached on the death of Steven, and I titled the sermon, “Getting Stoned.”  Arguably my best sermons ever.  But not everybody agreed.  They got mad about it, and they gossiped about it, and they wanted to argue about it.  And because those sermons were my babies, I wanted to argue right back.

Look—sometimes the things we argue about actually do matter, but it’s the way we communicate that’s the problem, not the fact that we disagree.  How do you feel when somebody takes something good that you do, something that you put your heart and your soul into, something that you don’t even do for yourself but for the good of other people, and they misunderstand, misinterpret, and misrepresent it to their friends?  I bet you don’t have to imagine it, because I’m sure it’s happened to you.  The book of Proverbs is a Book of Virtues that tells us how to handle these things.  It also tells us that God hates it when we do that kind of things ourselves.

 There are six things the Lord hates,
    seven that are detestable to him:
         haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
        hands that shed innocent blood,
         a heart that devises wicked schemes,
        feet that are quick to rush into evil,
         a false witness who pours out lies
        and a person who stirs up conflict in the community (Proverbs 6:16-19[ii]).

            The Bible uses some pretty strong words, saying that God hates and despises these things.  Proverbs 16:28 says, “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.”  It’s actually perverse to treat another person wrongly, just because you disagree with them.  So don’t do it—and don’t fuel the fire and make things words by talking about somebody who has upset you.  Proverbs 26:20-21; 17:1, 14, 19 says:

Without wood a fire goes out;
    without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
    so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife…
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet
    than a house full of feasting, with strife…
Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam;
    so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out…
Whoever loves a quarrel loves sin;
    whoever builds a high gate invites destruction.

            How do you deal it when somebody wants to argue with you, about what’s arguably the best thing that you’ve done, or that you do?  God’s Book of Virtues gives us some suggestions.  Proverbs 15:18 says, A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel.”  15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  A few weeks ago, I suggested the song, “I’m a Little Teapot” to remind you to see yourself with a little humor, not take yourself so seriously, and instead of boiling over, to pour your ego out when you get steamed up.  Proverbs 18:18 says, “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart.”  This means it would be better to flip a coin and trust to luck, rather than ague with a brother and destroy the relationship.  Verse 19 says, “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.”

            Maybe you see something in the Bible differently from your Christian friend—that doesn’t mean you need to fight about it.  Maybe someone has been gossiping about you, because they disagree with you and find it easier to talk about you than with you.  In William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues,[iii] you will find a little poem by Isaac Watts, entitled “Let Dogs Delight to Bark and Bite”, which says:

Let dogs delight to bark and bite
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For ‘tis their nature too.

But children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other’s eyes.

            Recently, I saw a video of two elephants fighting.  They use their massive weight against each other, and their three-meter tusks are like spears that can gouge out eyes.  During mating season, when bull elephants are in musth, there is six times more testosterone in their bodies than usual.  These hormone-driven fights can last up to ten hours long.[iv]  But an African proverb says, “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”  I wonder—what innocent people are suffering, because you persist in an argument that wasn’t worth beginning anyway?

God’s people get into conflict so often that sometimes one might wonder whether we really are God’s people.  It seems that Christians are often so convinced that we are right, that we become so insistent that we are mean-spirited about it.  Instead, we should listen to a word of wisdom I heard recently:[v]  “If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you’ll always be right.”  Proverbs 10:12 puts it this way: “Hatred stirs up conflict, but love covers over all wrongs.”  Jumping off of this verse, the apostle Peter wrote, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).”  It doesn’t matter whether you’re tempted to be on the offense or defense—choose love instead, and cover the sin.

[i] “Thirty of the Dumbest Arguments Ever.”  Pleated Jeans.  August 14, 2018.
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[iii] Bennett, William J.  The Book of Virtues.  Simon & Schuster: New York.  1993.  Pg. 37.
[v] Source unknown.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Book of Virtues # 3 - "Fear of the Lord"

Recently, I read about…

two guys in prison, who one night decide to escape.  So they sneak past the guards, get up on the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moonlight, away to freedom.  The first guy jumps right across with no problem.  But his friend doesn’t dare make the leap.  He’s afraid of falling.  So then, the first guy says, “Hey—I stole a flashlight!  I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings.  You can walk along the beam and join me!”  But the second guy just shakes his head.  He says, ‘What do you think I am?  Crazy?  You’d turn it off when I was half way across!”[i]

            This story demonstrates that we fear what we distrust.  The escaped convict doesn’t trust his buddy, so he’s afraid to walk across the beam of light.  We distrust the barking dog that scares us as we go for a walk.  We distrust the clown at the birthday party, because nobody should smile that wide while offering candy to children.  So it seems strange when we come across a Bible verse like Proverbs 1:7[ii], “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  We’re pretty sure we understand the second part of that saying, but the fear of the Lord is something that’s a bit hard to understand for some.  That’s because we fear what we distrust, and we’re supposed to trust God.

            It’s tough because too often we get the notion that the God of the New Testament was different from the God of the Old Testament—as if Jesus’ God is all grace and forgiveness, while the God of Moses was all law and wrath.  This isn’t true—We didn’t switch gods between the testaments—and the one true God doesn’t change.[iii]  Yet, the way God deals with people has changed from the old covenant to the new.  In the Old Testament, we read a lot about God sending plagues for judgment, and enemy nations sent to punish rebellious Israel.  Laws given to the Chosen People were harsh, with deadly consequences for sins we would consider trivial.  Even people who touched holy places and objects were struck down by God.  So, for Old Testament people, the fear of God was something foremost in their minds.  But it wasn’t a fear based on distrust.  It was a fear based on holy reverence, and an awe of a Power greater than themselves.
            I think that the reason God needed to deal more harshly with people in those days was that they were less capable of understanding Him.  It wasn’t their fault—human wisdom tends to grow by generations, centuries, and millennia.  Just as a child might need spankings when they are young (not going to get into that debate), but then grow out of that kind of discipline into something based on reasoning when the child becomes a teenager—so people from a harsher time and place needed harsher consequences for disobedience.  But as people’s understanding of God developed from the old covenant to the new, God could trust them with deeper teachings.  Instead of focusing on the easier concept of obedience like God had in the old covenant, God could introduce the more sophisticated concept of grace.  When we read about the “fear of the Lord” in over half the chapters of Proverbs, we need to keep in mind that Solomon and the others that wrote this book had a harsher, more brutal view of God than did Jesus and the apostles.  Again, God didn’t change from one covenant to the other—but people’s understanding and experience of God certainly did.

            But we are not reading the book of Proverbs from the same perspective as it was written.  When we talk about the fear of the Lord, we ought not shrink back from a divine King who might smite us at any moment.  Those who have experienced the grace of Jesus don’t need to grovel before an eternal Judge, as if their salvation was insecure.  Instead, for Christians to fear God means to have trust and reverent love for the Abba of Jesus, who is so much bigger and more wonderful than we can possibly imagine.  It’s a fear more akin to a man standing on the edge of Niagara Falls, blown away by raw power and beauty.  So it’s in that context that we receive the words of Proverbs 2:3-6:

Indeed, if you call out for insight
    and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
    and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

            Wisdom literature that invites us to fear God also gives warning to those who refuse Him:

 “Then they will call to me but I will not answer;
    they will look for me but will not find me,
since they hated knowledge
    and did not choose to fear the Lord.
Since they would not accept my advice
    and spurned my rebuke,
they will eat the fruit of their ways
    and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.
For the waywardness of the simple will kill them,
    and the complacency of fools will destroy them;
but whoever listens to me will live in safety
    and be at ease, without fear of harm (1:28-33).”

            Many of you have been taught about “Bible promises,” and told to hold onto them like secret treasure.  But some of the words of scripture that we interpret as promises are actually more like generalities.  For example, Proverbs 10:27 says, “The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.”  Or, Proverbs 9:10-11, which says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.  For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.”  This doesn’t mean that everybody who fears God will live a long life, while every wicked person will die an early death.  If that were so, then the Bible would prove itself false when good, young, believers die.  Instead, it’s a general saying like so many found in the Bible’s wisdom literature—that if you follow God’s way, things will tend to go better for you. 

            Simply put, if you follow God’s Book of Virtues, and live according to God’s loving and wise way, you can trust that things will go better for you than if you didn’t. Oswald Chambers said, "The remarkable thing about God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else."  Instead of fearing a God you can’t trust, you can trust a God who is fearsome on your behalf.  With the mighty God on your side, you can…

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).

[i] Reworded from a post by bdk3clash at 2:42 PM on September 30, 2010
[ii] Scripture quotations are from the NIV.
[iii] Malachi 3:6; Psalm 102:27; James 1:27; Hebrews 13:8