Monday, 28 November 2022

It is not for kings, Lemuel— it is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer. – Proverbs 31:4

Today's Scripture Reading (November 28, 2022): Proverbs 31

I live in a culture that has a problem with its alcohol. And the problem exists on both sides of the issue. On the consumption side, alcoholism and crimes that are related to drunkenness are rampant in our society. And it is not just a North American problem. I used to be part of a denomination that prohibited alcohol use by its members. I believed at the time that alcohol abuse seemed more of a North American problem and the denomination appeared to be continually addressing and possibly rejecting their teetotaling ways. During this time, I was responsible for transporting a pastor visiting from Africa to another church in a different city. As I drove him to his next engagement, our conversation turned to alcohol consumption. I apologized for the North American response to alcohol consumption, explaining the unhealthy relationship many have in our society with alcohol consumption. But my new friend stopped my explanation by assuring me that, regardless of what the General Assembly of the denomination might think, alcohol was a problem everywhere.

But there is a pushback to the policy of prohibition. The biblical prohibition is against drunkenness and not moderate consumption. As a result, we are making a mistake by pursuing a prohibition policy when the Bible teaches moderation. Why should the Christian community prohibit what the Bible does not prohibit? And the reality is that I agree with people on both sides of the argument.

Now I am part of a denomination with no alcohol policy. I remember being at a denominational function in the early days of my association with this group of churches and listening to an argument between a pastor and a board member about the relative advantages of making wine or brewing beer. When they paused and asked my opinion, I had nothing to say.

I have always believed that if you can drink in moderation, go ahead. But as for me, I will abstain, not because the Bible preaches against it, but because I believe that I am my brother's keeper, and I don't know who it is around me who cannot handle their alcohol. I don't want to be a stumbling block for someone else or the one who leads them in a direction that they cannot follow in a healthy way.

Proverbs would seem to agree with me. While wine is okay for most people and possibly even beneficial, Kings and leaders should abstain. And Proverbs and the Bible are not the only place where we can find such a prohibition on alcohol consumption for leaders. 

"The Carthaginians made a law that no magistrate of theirs should drink wine. The Persians permitted their kings to be drunk one day in a year only. Solon made a law at Athens that drunkenness in a prince should be punished with death (John A. Trap)

There is a difference between the rank and file and the leaders over them. But if any of us aspire to leadership, we should put away the alcohol so that God can influence our lives as we lead our communities in the direction of God. 

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Song of Songs 1

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise. – Proverbs 30:24

Today's Scripture Reading (November 27, 2022): Proverbs 30

I remember watching "The Lion King" with my kids back in the 90s. It was an interesting story, where lions rule as kings over the lesser or weaker animals of the African plain. In the case of "The Lion King," the specific lions who are the sovereigns at the beginning of the story are King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, and the tale begins with the introduction of their son, Simba, the young prince and heir apparent to the African throne of his father. One of the central concepts of the movie is that it is the job of power to act in a beneficial way toward those with less power. Larger animals will always need to kill to survive, but they are permitted to kill only when they must for their survival; death on the African plain can never be without meaning. Rafiki, a mandrill (an Old World species of monkey native to west-central Africa), is responsible for ensuring that Mufasa reigns in a wise manner. Of course, the King's brother, Scar, would like to rule differently, without the restrictions of wisdom that Scar believes Rafiki has placed on his brother.

We shouldn't miss the main theme of the story. It is the task of power to bring wisdom and justice to those who are weak. But the Lion is the King of Africa because of his strength, not his wisdom. He can decide to act wisely, but his power also allows the Lion to act selfishly. Only the Lion is the most powerful of the animals living on the African plain; therefore, the Lion is King.

Of course, there are others, weaker species who live on the margins in Africa. And when disaster strikes and Mufasa dies, Simba finds his way to a more vulnerable group of animals far from the African plain's central action. These animals may not be rulers over other animals, but they are survivors and have their own kind of wisdom. This introduces another side plot to the story; it is not that wisdom is absent among the weak; it is just not as easily shared. This brings us to the major plot turn in the story. After the death of Mufasa, Scar becomes King, and he rules without wisdom and justice, all of which changes the nature of life on the plain.

So, it is up to Simba and his friends to take control of the area and bring wisdom back to its proper place. It will require the power of Simba but also the understanding of his weaker friends to return the plain to the way it was under his father's rule. At the story's climax, Scar is defeated and exiled, and Simba reinstates the wisdom of Mufasa to the African plain.

Agur focuses his reader's attention not on the large and powerful but on the small and insignificant. And even though these animals might be small, Agur insists that they are wise and that we, the powerful, can learn lessons of wisdom from them.

These small animals include ants which lack the power to fight against their enemies yet still have the wisdom to save up food during summer. Agur points at hyraxes who have little strength yet find a way to make their homes among the rocks. He watches the behavior of locusts who have no king yet advance as one toward a common purpose. He sees the common lizard, which can be held in the hand, and yet it can be found anywhere, including living in the palace of the King. All exhibit wisdom, even though they are small, teaching us that wisdom does not exclusively belong to the powerful of the world. Even the small exhibit wisdom from which we can learn the lessons of wisdom that can be applied to our own lives.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Proverbs 31

Saturday, 26 November 2022

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. – Proverbs 29:7

Today's Scripture Reading (November 26, 2022): Proverbs 29

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel argues, "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." Injustice, wherever it happens, is the job of all of us. As people who love justice, we should be upset because Russia invaded Ukraine. We should be angry every time a young woman is killed in Iran for a morality violation in how they dress. It should terrify us that anyone wants to take advantage of the poor among us. We do not have the right to say, "Oh well, it is happening so far from where I live. What does it have to do with me?" We should not gain comfort because of an accident of being born in a safe place rather than in a place where violence reigns. Injustice might always be with us, but it should never be accepted, no matter where we may live.

On September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack that the nation has experienced on its territorial lands. It was an even worse event than the Canadians setting fire to the White House in 1814. (Okay, it was the British because Canada didn't exist then, but the attack came from the land that would one day be Canadian.) And while the September 11 attacks were terrible, they revealed the support the United States had worldwide. As had happened before, the British, French, Germans, and Canadians among many others stood with their American brothers and sisters, doing what they could to fight the injustice that had been visited on the civilians and people without power in the United States. American assistance to nations who had suffered an injustice was not a one-way street; their kindness would be returned. 

Proverbs asserts that the righteous care about any injustice committed against the poor, while the wicked have no such concern. The wicked are free from any responsibility for just behavior. In many ways, they have an advantage over the righteous because just principles do not restrain them. But their practices also reveal who they really are and what they believe.

Proverbs does not say that the righteous will eliminate injustice. It is not that the righteous have all the answers and solutions to the problem of poverty and injustice. Even Jesus admitted that "You will always have the poor among you" (John 12:8). Poverty and injustice are just part of this broken world in which we live. But the fact that injustice and poverty will always be with us does not give us an excuse to do nothing. We care, and because we care, we will fight against injustice wherever we find it. We may not be able to do much, but what we can do, righteousness demands that action of us all.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Proverbs 30

Friday, 25 November 2022

When a country is rebellious, it has many rulers, but a ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order. – Proverbs 28:2

Today's Scripture Reading (November 25, 2022): Proverbs 28

An ancient Arabic curse says, "May God make your sheiks many." The idea seems to be that with many sheiks, the people and direction of the community become paralyzed as they are pulled in many directions by their various leaders. And this confusion of many Sheiks is the very condition that led to the rise of Muhammad and the Islamic faith. According to tradition, Muhammad looked at the Abrahamic religions and saw they were united. The Jews were unified by the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible, and the Christians by the Christian Testament. But when Muhammad looked at his people and saw tribes who were continually at war with each other, with each small tribe being led by a regional leader. They were a people with many sheiks. He called the Jews and Christians "People of the Book," and he wanted his people also to be "People of the Book," a people whose leaders were united in one direction by the word of God. 

So, Muhammad began to pray to the God of the Jews and the Christians that he would send a Book to his people, the very people who Muhammad believed were also the descendants of Abraham through the patriarch's oldest son. According to the legend, this is the origin story of the Qu'ran. Slowly, God began to give a book to Muhammad, and the Prophet made sure that these visions from God were written down, hoping to unite a deeply divided people. But healing always starts by being unified by one purpose and one set of principles.

Today, I live in a deeply divided culture as the political left and right scream insults at each other. We often seem convinced that the other side is demonic or less than human. We are so sure we are right, and the other is wrong, that we have stopped listening to each other. We live in a culture that exists inside that ancient Arabic curse; God has given us many sheiks.

In many ways, it is the way that our culture was designed. The way that the fathers of our democratic practices developed our culture was that we would elect representatives to lead us but to get anything done, they would have to make compromises. Those compromises would ensure that our governments never strayed too far in either political direction. The government that got things done would remain a politically central government. Compromises would have to be made, but no one had to move far to achieve a unifying purpose for the nation. Growing up, I looked that the major political parties, and there just wasn't much difference between them. The Liberal and Democratic parties tended to be a little left of center, while the Conservative and Republican parties tended to be a little right of center.

That is no longer the truth. The political parties have moved so far to the extremes, right or left, that I don't believe they still speak for the people. Today, there seems to be a greater distance between the center-right and the extreme right and center-left and the extreme left than there used to be between the left and right parties. And we are suffering because of it. We have many rulers and no central purpose. We have violent rhetoric leading us to violent action. It is a curse that both the Bible and ancient Arabic traditions have predicted, and there will be no healing unless we can find our way back to at least a single principle that is important to us all.

If we can't get there, we are living in the final days of our culture. Rome is falling, even if we can't see it.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Proverbs 29

Thursday, 24 November 2022

As water reflects the face, so one's life reflects the heart. - Proverbs 27:19

Today's Scripture Reading (November 24, 2022): Proverbs 27

Fantasy author Leigh Bardugo in "Six of Crows" writes that "The heart is an arrow. It demands aim to land true." Leigh is right, but it might be better said that "The heart is an arrow, but it hits the target at which our life is aimed." The heart just isn't very good at trick shots. Whatever the heart is set toward, its arrows will be sent there. It doesn't matter what we say is important to us because the heart knows the difference between our words and actions, and it always sends its arrows in the direction of our actions and not towards our words.

Proverbs says that just as water reflects the face of the one bending over it, the heart will be mirrored by our actions. If you want to know where someone's heart is, watch their life's actions. Actions will only reflect something other than the heart's desire with great effort, and that effort is unsustainable. We live in the direction of our hearts, and those around us will know what our heart finds important by how we live. A racist heart will always result in racist actions. A loving heart will be revealed in how we act toward those around us and whether we are willing to love even those who refuse to love us.

It is nice to think that we can change our behavior by deciding to that change with our mind, but real change is much deeper. It involves the heart or wherever we believe the core of our being resides. As a result, behavioral change always requires a changed heart.

So Ezekiel, writing to the exiles in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., speaks these words of God.

"'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God (Ezekiel 36:24-28).

Effecting real change means we need to be willing to change our hearts. We must be willing to let God remove our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh that will be responsive to the things of God. Only then will we be the people that God created us to be, and only then will the arrows of our hearts hit the target at which God wants our lives to be aimed.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Proverbs 28

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. – Proverbs 26:11

Today's Scripture Reading (November 23, 2022): Proverbs 26

South African author Mokokoma Mokhonoana noted, "There probably was a time when the idea of having a toilet inside a house was repulsive." It is an interesting concept for our contemporary minds. I must admit that now I find walking to an outhouse repulsive, but that is just me. He is right. I can just imagine the first time someone suggested an inside toilet. "You mean you want me to do that close to the place where we eat? Shouldn't a toilet be a certain distance away from the house? I am not sure that I am ready for that!" But now, we have gotten used to the idea. In fact, most of us have many toilets inside the house. My house has three, and since most of the time, it is just my wife and I living there, we always have a choice.

But that is what happens with things that we find repulsive. One day the idea of something is revolting, but the more time we spend with the concept, the less disgusting the idea gets. And if we are talking about inside toilets, that is probably a good thing. However, that reality also holds true for something we should consider repulsive.

Proverbs uses a dog returning to its vomit as an example of this idea. A dog returns to its vomit because the vomit, for some reason, is not repulsive to it (or maybe the dog just doesn't remember what it is that is lying in front of it. I don't know why; I can't get into the minds of our furry friends, but the practice is revolting to the author of the proverb and to many contemporary readers. The argument from Proverbs is that the problem with a fool is that, somehow, they have gotten used to concepts that they once likely found repulsive. As a result of that comfort, they have no problem returning to the behavior of folly they once would have rejected because the action was disgusting.

Peter uses the same principle as he describes the attractiveness of sin.

It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: "A dog returns to its vomit," and, "A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud" (2 Peter 2:21-22).

Their behavior shouldn't make sense to us because we have found a better way. But to a fool, the foolish action makes sense.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Proverbs 27

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him; he refreshes the spirit of his master. – Proverbs 25:13

Today's Scripture Reading (November 22, 2022): Proverbs 25

There are some differences between the Bible that Protestants read and the one read by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. And one of those differences is the addition of several books that are included in the Catholic or Eastern orthodox Old Testament that are missing in the Protestant Bibles. One of those "other books" is the Book of Judith. Protestant scholars have noted historical mistakes in the writing, such as calling Nebuchadnezzar a "King of Assyria" instead of "Babylon," as well as no historical evidence that the Book of Judith was ever considered canonical by the Jewish Scholars. The most common opinion seems to be that Judith is a historical novel or, like some of the movies we watch, which note that it is "a story based on true events." There is some truth to these stories, but there are also many added elements that are not historical and didn't really happen, at least not in the way the story depicts. And there has been no effort to get all of the facts right.

But that doesn't mean that nothing in the Book of Judith can be useful for us as readers of the Bible. And one of the things that Judith does is give us a look into the life in the centuries that immediately preceded the birth of Jesus. One of those illuminating ideas is the story of Judith's husband, Manasseh. According to the tale, Judith is a widow; Judith's husband died while harvesting the crops. "While he was supervising those who bound the sheaves in the field, he was overcome by the heat; and he collapsed on his bed and died in Bethulia, his native city. He was buried with his ancestors in the field between Dothan and Balamon" (Judith 8:3 NABRE). The story was probably not an uncommon one. Heat can be hard to take, especially if you must work in it. So, the death of Manasseh, while tragic, would have been understandable in ancient times.

It also reveals a practice of smart employers during this era. Without any artificial ways of keeping things cold, people had to look for natural ways to bring cooling refreshments to the hot fields. And one of those methods was to bring ice and snow down from the mountains and place them in a cool cave, where hopefully, the snow would remain frozen for a slightly extended time. Treated properly, the snow and ice would provide a place where the drinks could be kept cool, providing a welcome relief for the workers toiling in the harvest heat. As Proverbs speak of a snow-cooled drink, it was not that it would snow during the harvest. If that were to happen, it would be a disaster for the crop, which the moisture and the cold would ruin. Instead, it was about vineyard owners who went to extraordinary lengths to get coolness to the workers on a hot day.

Proverbs says a trustworthy messenger is like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time. Knowing that an important message will get through to where it needs to be refreshes the one sending it like a cool drink refreshes and gives life to those who are working the harvest. Neither have to worry about the task at hand; both have made preparations for everything needing to be done.

Tomorrow's Scripture Reading: Proverbs 26