Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book of Virtues # 9 - The Mother of All Sins

I wanted to share a little story with you about patience.  A teacher…

was helping one of her kindergarten students put his boots on? He asked for help and she could see why. With her pulling and him pushing, the boots still didn't want to go on. By the time she got the second boot on, she had worked up a sweat.

She almost whimpered when the little boy said, "Teacher, they're on the wrong feet." She looked and sure enough, they were. It wasn't any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as they worked together to get the boots back on -- this time on the right feet.

He then announced, "These aren't my boots." She bit her tongue rather than get right in his face and scream, "Why didn't you say so?" like she wanted to. Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off.

He then said, "They're my brother's boots. My Mom made me wear them." She didn't know if she should laugh or cry. She mustered up the grace to wrestle the boots on his feet again.

She said, "Now, where are your mittens?" He said, "I stuffed them in the toes of my boots ..."[i]

            Now, maybe you’re not a teacher, but I can bet you’ve felt the same way!  Sometimes patience can be difficult, when you’re doing everything you can to accomplish something, and things keep happening to ruin your day.  Or, patience can be hard to come by when you’re waiting on something good that never seems to come.  Like that half-hour pizza delivery that’s too slow.  But if we’re that impatient our solution becomes the Little Caesar’s hot-and-ready pizza, and what you gain in instant gratification, you sacrifice in quality.

            The Bible has a lot to say about patience.  In the Old Testament, God’s people had to wander in the wilderness forty years to make the full 822 miles from the Red Sea to Jericho.  Believe me—they learned patience!  In the New Testament, Jesus talked about the wise man building his house on a rock, which apparently takes longer than building on sand, or maybe rocky property costs more money, which means he had to save longer.  According to one website, “the saying – ‘patience is a virtue’ comes from the poem called Piers Plowman, created in 1360 – 1387. The original author of the quote is William Langland.”[ii]  That expression is as true today as it was then—as are the Bible’s bits of advice about patience.

The book of Proverbs says a lot about patience in the way we run our mouths.  Did you ever know someone who talks a lot, just to show how smart they are?  Proverbs 17:27 says, “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.[iii]  Generally, it’s the person who talks the least, who knows the most—but a lot of people don’t seem to grasp that fact.  How do you think a smart person gets to be smart?  By listening.  By being quiet.  Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  Lately, I’ve been trying to be a better question-asker, and a better listener.  I hope it makes me a better person, and that it helps me to care for what others have to say more than I care about expressing my own opinion. 

Sometimes you realize you’ve been impatient when you’re in an argument, and you say just what you’re thinking, way too quickly.  Proverbs 29:11 says, “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”  Sometimes it’s best, just to bite your tongue and not say what you’re thinking, if you know that your words would bring pain.  Don’t tell your wife what you think of her mother.  Just be patient.  Breathe.  Step away and come back to finish the discussion later when you’re more clear-headed. 

Proverbs warns not to be too quick to speak, even if it’s something good or helpful that you’re saying.  Lots of people have made vows to God.  Like, “God, if you let me win the lottery, I’ll give half the winnings to you.”  Or, “God, if you let this airplane land safely, I promise I’ll give up drinking.”  But Proverbs 20:25 says, “It is a trap to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider one’s vows.”  Jesus said it’s better not to make vows at all, but just let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no.”[iv]  Speaking too quickly can get you in trouble.

Proverbs advises patience, not just in what we say, but in what we do.  We’re an Amazon Prime kind of generation, where we expect to buy with one click, and have it show up on our doorstep, delivered by a drone, in twenty-four hours.  The problem with our instant gratification is that we often don’t take the time to make sure we’re making wise purchases.  Then, when the box arrives, we have to acquaint ourselves with the return policy.  Proverbs 19:2 says, “Desire without knowledge is not good—how much more will hasty feet miss the way!”  Or, like the teenage couple that is so “in love” that they don’t wait before having sex, only to regret it later.  Hasty feet miss the way—and in many cases the result is something for which there’s no return policy. 

It’s been said that pride is the father of all sins; If that’s true, impatience is the mother.  Pride says, “You’re the most important, so you deserve it!”  Impatience says, “Not only do you deserve it, but you can have it now!”  Put these two together, and you have a whole family tree of sins that follows suit.  This could be the woman who has taken to excessive gambling because she can’t wait to grow her fortune by investing or saving wisely.  Or it could be the man who can’t wait for his marriage to improve, so he looks outside of it for comfort.  It might be the person who chooses the immediate gratification of that donut over the patience it takes to gain a healthy lifestyle.  Together, Pride and Impatience can have lots of babies—but humility and patience put a stop to these two ever meeting, marrying, and making babies.  In Psychology Today, Dr. Judith Orloff writes about practicing patience:

To turn the tables on frustration, find a long, slow-moving line to wait in. Perhaps in the grocery store, bank, post office. Or if you’re renewing your driver’s license, dare to take on the mother of all lines in the DMV. But here’s the switch: Instead of getting irritated or pushy, which taxes your system with a rush of stress hormones, take a breath. Tell yourself, “I’m going to wait peacefully and enjoy the pause.” Meanwhile, try to empathize with the overwrought cashier or government employee. Smile and say a few nice words to the other beleaguered people in line. Use the time to daydream; take a vacation from work or other obligations. Notice the stress release you feel, how your body relaxes. Lines are an excellent testing ground for patience. To strengthen this asset, I highly recommend standing in as many as possible.

Practicing patience will help you dissipate stress and give you a choice about how you respond to disappointment and frustration. When you can stay calm, centered and not act rashly out of frustration, all areas of your life will improve.[v]

[iii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.
[iv] Matthew 5:37.
[v] Judith Orloff, M.D.  “The Power of Patience: The importance of patience as a coping skill and how to achieve it.”  Psychology Today.  Posted Sep 18, 2012  September 18, 2018.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Book of Virtues # 8 - "The Green-Eyed Monster"

Last week we talked about pride, and how it “goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).”[i]  Pride I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable, “The Peacock:

The Peacock, they say, did not at first have the beautiful feathers in which he now takes so much pride. These, Juno, whose favorite he was, granted to him one day when he begged her for a train of feathers to distinguish him from the other birds. Then, decked in his finery, gleaming with emerald, gold, purple, and azure, he strutted proudly among the birds. All regarded him with envy. Even the most beautiful pheasant could see that his beauty was surpassed.
Presently the Peacock saw an Eagle soaring high up in the blue sky and felt a desire to fly, as he had been accustomed to do. Lifting his wings he tried to rise from the ground. But the weight of his magnificent train held him down. Instead of flying up to greet the first rays of the morning sun or to bathe in the rosy light among the floating clouds at sunset, he would have to walk the ground more encumbered and oppressed than any common barnyard fowl.[ii]

            Pride is a one-person affair—thinking that you’re so great that you deserve special honor.  Envy is a two-person affair—comparing yourself to others and wishing you had what they possess.  Aesop’s story begins with the peacock’s pride, and ends with the bird’s envy.  Both exhibit a sense of discontent in what a person already has, or what a person already is.  When a person compares what they have with what others have, we often say they are “green with envy.”  According to one website, “The origin of the idiom 'green with envy' is believed to come directly from the great William Shakespeare himself. In Othello, Iago warns Othello: ‘Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’”[iii]

            The Bible is our book of virtues that has much to say about the topic of envy.  Interestingly, most of the references to envy take the assumption that the people you might feel this way towards are all dirty, rotten, sinners.  Let me give you a few examples.  Proverbs 3:31-32 says, “Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways.  For the Lord detests the perverse but takes the upright into his confidence.”  Proverbs 23:17-18 says, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.”  Proverbs 24:1-2, 19-20 says, “Do not envy the wicked, do not desire their company; for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk about making trouble.  Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of the wicked, for the evildoer has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.” 

While it’s true that some people do envy the wicked, it’s also true that we’re far more apt to paint people as wicked if we envy them.  You see, envy is a creative artist who knows how to depict us as the good guys who have been slighted, and people who have something we want as the miserly bad guys who just refuse to share.  The Book of Proverbs doesn’t argue against your false assumptions but works within them.  Instead of saying, “Now, you know, they’re really not that bad,” Proverbs says, “Ok—you say that the people you’re envious of are sinners—let’s grant that for a moment, but let me show you why it’s not a good idea to envy them.”  Proverbs says that we shouldn’t envy because God is with the upright, and because God has a future hope for us.  Besides this, “the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out” reminding us that all gain is temporary—so why rush after it like a green-eyed monster? 

The Bible is filled with stories of people who caused trouble because of envy.  In the Old Testament, Joseph’s brothers resented him because of the coat of many colors.[iv]  In the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells the story of the delinquent returning home.  But the older, well-behaved and responsible brother is envious of the attention lavished on the one who had been pardoned.[v]  The result of envy is that it sickens the spirit, and the Bible says, can even sicken your body.  Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”  Envy is bad for you, Proverbs says—but having a peaceful, contented spirit gives life.

Envy is bad enough on its own, but when you combine envy with pride, you get covetousness—a sense of entitlement that says that what another person has ought to be yours.  Sometimes this can be not a one-person or a two-person affair, but even a three-person problem.  Exodus 20:17 gives one of the Ten Commandments as: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  Coveting isn’t just envying something like your neighbor has.  Coveting is wanting the same thing that your neighbor has.  Often, it can lead to you wanting to take what your neighbor has.  And when that object of your obsession is a person (that belongs to your neighbor), you’ve created a complex problem that leads to destruction.

In Luke 12:15, Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  Jesus advises not to give thought to worldly possessions, but to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first—and then sit back and wait for God to give us what we need (Matthew 6:33).  The solution is learning to be content with what you have, and in who you are (which is even more important).  Learn to see yourself not by comparison to your neighbor, but as God sees you—whole and complete, made in God’s image and worthy of God’s love.  God made you just as you are, and God has a purpose for you.  That purpose doesn’t involve trying to acquire or become something that’s not meant for you.  It involves a heart at peace (Proverbs 14:30). 

That peace can be awfully difficult when you’re constantly comparing yourself to another.  Aesop told a tale about a horse and a donkey that illustrates this point:

A Horse and an Ass were travelling together, the Horse prancing along in its fine trappings, the Ass carrying with difficulty the heavy weight in its panniers. “I wish I were you,” sighed the Ass; “nothing to do and well fed, and all that fine harness upon you.” Next day, however, there was a great battle, and the Horse was wounded to death in the final charge of the day. His friend, the Ass, happened to pass by shortly afterwards and found him on the point of death. “I was wrong,” said the Ass: “Better humble security than gilded danger.”[vi]

            Instead of comparing what you have to someone else, or comparing who you are to someone else, it’s better to find contentment inside yourself.  Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”  Find your identity in Jesus, because He is the One who gives life to the full.

[i] All scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.
[ii]  September 11, 2018.
[iv] Genesis 37
[v] Luke 15:11-32

Monday, October 1, 2018

Book of Virtues # 7 - "Pride Before the Fall"

            Social media has made today’s world so full of bragging that it’s hard to tell the difference between people simply sharing good stuff in their lives, and people exercising arrogance.  Dr. Samantha Rodman talks about six ways that moms brag about their kids:

1. The Obvious Brag.  “James runs so fast that the coach said he’ll be a shoo-in for college track!”

2. The Subtle Brag.  “Ella isn’t that great at school, [besides her A’s,] she got two B’s this term.”

3. The Vicarious Brag.  “Ivy got asked to the prom by three different guys. I remember when that happened to me!”

4. The Unique Snowflake Brag.  “Jonathan has five different species of bugs in jars in his room. That boy is a budding entomologist if I ever saw one!”

5. The Heart Of Gold Brag.  “Pia insisted that the family spend Thanksgiving building homeless shelters in Mumbai this year. That girl, wow.”

6. The Brag About Your Own Kid.  “Fiona just killed it at the orchestra performance. I guess that my flautist genes carried on, or possibly the fact that I’ve encouraged her to practice—lovingly and totally not in a Tiger Mom way—every night since she was 7.”[i]

 The truth is that everybody catches themselves bragging now and then.  The Bible has a lot to say about bragging and the sin of pride.  It's important to recognize pride in ourselves because it can have some very dire consequences.  The book of Proverbs warns about this problem, saying, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (16:18[ii]).”  Here are several outgrowths of pride, that Proverbs warns against:[G1] [G2] 

1.      Listening to Yourself First.  Proverbs 18:12-13 says, “Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor. To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  A lot of people spend more time talking in a conversation than they spend asking questions and listening.  This shows pride because it puts yourself first.  The result is that you don't learn. [G3] 

2.      Taking the Best, First.  Proverbs 25:6-7 says, “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.”  Jesus echoes this in Luke 14:8-11: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.  But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.  For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

3.      Bragging About the Future.  Proverbs 27:1 says, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” I knew a man who used to brag about how much money he was “on track” to make—without him even making it.  Jesus’ brother James expands on how arrogant this is: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16).”

4.      Putting Your Comfort or Success First.  Now, we’re touching a sore spot, because this is the American way.  But Proverbs 16:19 says, “Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.”  If putting yourself first means stepping on other people, God calls that sin, even if it’s the way the world works.

5.      Praising Yourself.  Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.”  And even when it’s somebody else who praises you, be careful—because the way you handle other people’s praise says a lot about you.  Proverbs 27:21 says, “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but people are tested by their praise.”  When you receive praise from others, don’t exercise false modesty.  Don’t say “aw, shucks,” or turn it away.  But don’t glory in it, either.  Simply say, “Thank you.”

6.      Gloating.  Proverbs 24:17 says, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.”  Remember, God doesn’t play favorites (Romans 2:11).  Gloating presumes you’re in a position that you might not possess—so just be careful, or you might be next!

7.      Putting Your Trust in Yourself.  Proverbs 28:26 says, “Those who trust in themselves are fools, but those who walk in wisdom are kept safe.”  The Bible warns not to trust in yourself overmuch, but to place your trust in God.

Aesop told a fable about two roosters fighting for dominance in the farmyard.  “Finally, one was vanquished and he went and hid himself in a corner of the hen-house. Defeated by Pride The victor flew up to the roof of the barn and begin to crow, ‘I’ve won, I’ve won!’ An eagle swooped down and carried him away and the rooster that had been defeated suddenly found himself unchallenged master of the farmyard.”[iii]  The Book of Proverbs reinforces this truth when it reminds us, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (16:18).”  I pray you’ll think before you crow, and that you’ll remember, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble (James 4:6).”

[i] Rodman, Dr. Samantha.  6 Ways Moms Brag About Their Kids.  Edited from the original:  September 4, 2018.
[ii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.




Book of Virtues # 6 - "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

            Fred Rogers began his work in children’s television programming with the live WQED Pittsburgh show “The Children’s Corner,” where Josie Carey was the host and Rogers was puppeteer, composer, and organist.  Rogers attended and graduate from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister.  His denomination recognized his call to ministry, but understood that broadly and had the insight to charge him with continuing his work with children and their families through his television ministry.  The Canadian Broadcasting Company invited him north, where he produced a show called “Misterogers.”  “In 1968 it was made available for national distribution through the National Educational Television (NET) which later became Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).”[i]

            According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tom Hanks will begin filming his new movie, “You are My Friend,” this fall in the Steel City, where the TV show was originally produced.  The article says, “The 50th anniversary of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was in February, sparking tributes across the globe, as well as films, TV specials, opinion pieces and online features.  Morgan Neville’s critically acclaimed documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is currently in theaters.”[ii]  This documentary portrays the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Fred Rogers as a radical, who promoted racial equality during a time of inequality, and who addressed tough issues such as death and divorce, in a way that kids could understand.  His message was simple: “Love is at the root of everything.  All learning, all relationships.  Love, or the lack of it.”  Fred said, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.”[iii]

            Many of us grew up either showing Mr. Rogers’ program to our kids, watching it as kids, or both.  His life is a quiet, gentle reminder of the virtue of being a neighbor.  I expect that Reverend Rogers would point to the Bible, and perhaps to the Book of Proverbs as a book of virtues that teaches us more about what it means to be a neighbor.  Maybe your next door neighbor happens to be your best friend, but for most people, neighbors are people that they have to learn to live with, whether they like them or not. 

First, Proverbs addresses good relations between neighbors who are friendly in their acquaintance.  You want to maintain good relations, because there may be a time when you need your neighbor.  27:10[iv] says, “Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family, and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you—better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.”  Neighborliness goes a long way, but Proverbs 25:16-17 reminds us not to overdo it.  If you find honey, eat just enough—too much of it, and you will vomit.  Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house—too much of you, and they will hate you.”  This reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s reminder that houseguests, like fish, stink after three days.  Being neighborly is a good thing, but don’t force your unwanted presence.  27:14 cautions against too much of a good thing, saying, “If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.”  Be friendly with your neighbor—but know the extent to which you’re wanted or not.

            Next, Proverbs also reminds us to be good to our neighbors.  3:27-30 says, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.  Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you’—when you already have it with you.  Do not plot harm against your neighbor, who lives trustfully near you.  Do not accuse anyone for no reason—when they have done you no harm.”  In Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, these things ought to come as second nature, but unfortunately, they don’t.  These are things we need to be taught.  Proverbs 14:21 says, “It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.”

            Finally, it ought It also ought to go without saying, that if we’re to be kind to our neighbors, we should also not be horrible to them.  But Proverbs addresses this as well.  “A violent person entices their neighbor and leads them down a path that is not good (16:29).”  Proverbs 21:10 says, “The wicked crave evil; their neighbors get no mercy from them.”  24:18 says, “Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is one who gives false testimony against a neighbor.”  Finally, 26:18-19 says, “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’”  There’s nothing funny about being a bad neighbor.  Sometimes we need a Mr. Rogers, a Book of Virtues, or a Robert Frost to tell us that.

            In his famous poem, “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost tells of two neighbors who meet to repair the wall between them.  Every Spring they find that it has been damaged by water or frozen ground-swell, or by hunters and their dogs.  Each year they walk the line between them, picking up stones that have fallen, and replacing them.  Frost intones, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” meaning that it seems nature itself conspires to tear down this artificial boundary that men erect between one another.  He wants to tell his neighbor that walls are for keeping cows in, not people out—and they don’t even have any cows.  Frost continues:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

But Frost’s point is that they don’t.  What makes good neighbors isn’t keeping up walls and holding each other at arm’s length.  What makes good neighbors is love.  Galatians 5:14 says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This goes for the people who live near us, the people who live across our borders, and the people who are hardest to love.  When we can learn to love our neighbor as ourselves, we will look even at the least savory and say, “Would you be mine, could you be mine?  Won’t you be my neighbor?”

[i] Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: A History.  August 27, 2018.
[ii] Scuillo, Maria.  “Tom Hanks-as-Fred Rogers film, 'You Are My Friend,' begins shooting in Pittsburgh this fall.”  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  August 27, 2018.  August 27, 2018.
[iii]WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? - Official Trailer [HD] - In Select Theaters June 8.  August 27, 2018.
[iv] Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.