Proverbs and the meaning of words

I admit it, I love dictionaries. These are from my Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary:

Definition: statement of the precise meaning of a term
Proverb: short pithy saying in general use

Good, aren’t they? And true. Compare them with the following couplet:

A definition closes the gates,
but a proverb breaks down the fence

These lines also are about definition and proverbs, but so much more confusing! Who wrote that rubbish? (Oh yes. It was me.)

Although the second box is very different from the first, I think it is just as true. And more like the way we should approach Proverbs.

The wisdom of the proverbs in the Bible book of Proverbs is not a series of definitions. It is not a series of specifications of how to behave and think. More often the proverbs make creative associations. They surprise us and our minds go in unexpected directions – good and helpful directions.

Here’s one example.

Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit
but righteousness delivers from death. (Prov 10:2 esv)

If we treat this as simple prose, we get a mundane tip. ‘For a good outcome, don’t chase money but be righteous.’

Reading slowly, however, we find the unexpected and possibly confusing. Treasure is not profit? Profit defines treasure! OK, perhaps we’re meant to think of a ‘deeper’ meaning, of treasure as a metaphor for what’s really valuable.

But it’s still pretty simple. Isn’t it?

The second line of the verse doesn’t let us settle easily. This is the flip side of line one. We might expect the righteous to gain wealth by righteousness, but no. The righteous here couldn’t be bothered listing any possession at all.

Instead, the contrast with ‘no profit’ is ‘deliver from death.’ Is this meant to be a profit? And what kind of death does it mean? And – going back to acts of wickedness – are we meant to see that the unjust treasure is actually the fear of death? Perhaps the wicked possess gold as a foolish way to ignore their own impending death: how pitiful they are!

After reading this one proverb – just one! – we get a reminder of some straightforward advice. But so much more happens, and God puts so many more questions before us. We are meant to ponder and consider and enjoy the creativity of the saying. We cannot claim that we have exhausted the meaning of the text, not even of a single proverb.



Obligatory thanks

In 2 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul, Silas and Timothy admit to a debt: ‘we ought always to give thanks to God for you.’ That is, ‘When it comes to thanks, we are obligated, we owe it.’ It’s similar in 2 Thessalonians 2:13.

I can see why some say this is not very warm or personal. Almost: if we have to then we will do it. It doesn’t help that the verse includes a second similar idea, ‘as is right’. This could be the I-suppose-I-should moment.

Yet this doesn’t tally with the sense of how close Paul was to the church of Thessalonica, in both 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians, as well as Acts. ‘You are our glory and joy’, Paul wrote (1 Thess 2:20).

So how can thanksgiving be both obligatory and personal? Here are two reasons.

First is that these words narrow in on Paul’s relationship with God. Paul is not trying to say to the church, ‘I am so thankful for our relationship’ (even though that would be true). Paul is saying, ‘Father God, your great work in these people make thanksgiving mandatory!’

(Credit: I found this idea here.)

Second, I believe Paul is teaching this church how to give thanks even in troubled times.

2 Thessalonians 1 shows us a church under great pressure: steadfast in persecution, enduring tribulation, suffering, afflicted, requiring relief. I’m not sure thanksgiving would have been at the top of their To Do list!

Despite knowing this, Paul says to the church: It is right and necessary to give thanks. You trust Jesus. Godly love is increasing. Jesus will be revealed and bring justice. Your steadfastness is visible to all.

Paul sympathises with this suffering church, and lovingly lifts their view to consider the magnitude of their blessing – so that both they and he would genuinely thank God. Perhaps they were tempted to bypass thanksgiving for a while. Perhaps they forgot about thanks because of the pressure. But thanksgiving was still obligatory.

Therefore, let’s learn to give thanks today. We can and should be thankful for warm Christian relationships. We also must learn to turn our minds to God and be thankful for all he does. And, by giving thanks, we learn how to live by faith even when life is far from easy.



Spiritual wisdom

A great, short quotation from Graeme Goldsworthy:

The quest for empirical wisdom is not an optional exercise for dilettantes. Proverbs, and the wisdom literature in general, counter the idea that being spiritual means handing all decisions over to the leading of the Lord. The opposite in true. Proverbs reveals that the God does not make all people’s decisions for them, but rather expects them to use his gift of reason to interpret the circumstances and events of life within the framework of revelation that he has given.

(This is number five of the theological presuppositions of Proverbs, in his article ‘Proverbs’ in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.)



Quick review: I am Malala

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is quite an astonishing family – especially Malala (of course!), but also her father. Through this biography, we get a sense of their dedication to the cause of education even in the face of grave danger.

Malala, and her beloved Swat Valley, faced – and still face – many dangers. She narrates a number of the troubles of Pakistan and Pashtun history. But the worst, it seems, is the Taliban infiltration of the valley. Starting with apparently benign aims of social improvement, the Taliban’s presence in the valley became increasingly violent and uncontrollable. Malala’s verbal pictures of external carnage and internal fear simply underline how extraordinary is her bravery in speaking up for education of all, especially girls.

And so the Taliban shot her. The injuries were serious, and her rehabilitation difficult for all. But you don’t need me to recount the story of the book. The book is clear and speaks for itself. Instead of a re-listing, here are some impressions and thoughts from I am Malala.

This book successfully gives an outsider like me a feel for some of the history of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s complex, but the amount of complexity recorded is just enough so I am not totally confused.

Through written with the help of an English journalist (Christina Lamb), Malala’s voice comes through. This sounds like a teenager speaking – speaking well of serious matters, indeed, but still being herself. I’m glad this book does not sound like anonymous, anodyne reportage. Obviously Malala has a strong voice and Lamb is a good journalist.

The tone of this book is mature. It’s not that blame is planted simplistically at the feet of just one or two actors. And even those who fail have moments of strength. For example, Malala’s mentions of Pakistan’s military – of which there are many – do not at all absolve them of culpability in Pakistan’s turmoil. And yet there are also military personnel and structures credited with good and helpful activity.

Finally, showing my definite interest in matters of faith, Islam’s place in the tapestry of Malala’s story is fascinating. The presentation of Islam is a particular example of the book’s qualities noted above: complexity and maturity. Malala is an observant and prayerful Muslim. The Taliban are also Muslim (there’s none of the silly Western pretence that they’re not) – but their expression of Islam is criticised from within the tent of Islam. Pakistan is notably a Muslim homeland, yet Malala wonders why this nation has harmed Muslims more than if there had not been a split between India and Pakistan.

I am very glad for the brave Mulsim activists I heard of in this book: Malala, her father, and a number of others. But I long also for there to be more Christians in Pakistan and the Islamic world. This is not because there’s any greater deficiency in those people compared with others – but because of the greatness of Jesus whom Christians trust. The gospel of the Lord Jesus is needed in places of war, just as it is in places of complacent peace.

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Average preachers, a follow-up

Last week I wrote a tip for average preachers. The tip (pray for better listeners) follows my belief that sermon quality for average preachers depends on the quality of the listeners.

I kept that bog post short, even though my mind was full of other implications. This post is all about the implications.

The big implication is this: usual church preaching is a co-operative activity. Preaching is a team event, not solo performance – it’s the activity of a body, not a hero. Speaker and listeners work together.

The ways we live that out are many:

  • We start with thankfulness for each other
    Speaker & listeners are joining in the great task of hearing God speak, with dedication to faithful obedience. It’s immense that we do so together, no matter what the numbers, abilities, etc
  • We encourage everyone’s part
    It’s wonderful that people come to church (preacher or not). Let’s say that more often, and to each other as well
  • We work on the preaching setting
    How’s the room you meet in? Can people hear OK? Is it too cold, too warm? Are there Bibles available, especially for visitors? I’m sure there are weeks when a sermon ‘worked’ because someone decided to close the back door and block the traffic noise
  • We work outside the preaching setting
    A church that builds its members in love for 167 hours a week will make better use of the 168th hour of the week, the hour that includes a sermon
  • We train listening ability
    Everyone helps training happen, preachers and non-preachers. We can learn better how to listen well, to understand, to seek clarification, and to expect God’s word to change us. In addition, churches can run formal training on making the most of sermons
  • We practice humility
    This is for the preachers. It’s not that our finely-crafted words are the secret to church life. The ‘secret’ is God’s word calling forth faith in his children – if God uses us, that’s a wonderful privilege and kindness


A tip for average preachers

No teasing – here’s the tip for average preachers: pray for better listeners.

This post is not about extraordinary and brilliant preachers. These people have wonderful content that’s true and challenging. Their communication is excellent, being clear, engaging and memorable. Even those who disagree enjoy the listening.

This post is not about poor preachers, who fail in both content and communication. Everyone who hears them goes away confused.

I am writing about the majority of preachers. They have something to say, but  are not Einsteins of the text. These preachers communicate adequately, but they won’t take Olympic gold medals for oration.

I’m convinced that, especially for average preachers, the quality of the sermon depends on the quality of the listeners. Faithful and devoted listeners make for good sermons. Grumbling and faithless listeners make for poor sermons.

the quality of the sermon depends on the quality of the listeners

Why? Because the listener to average preaching will find what they’re looking for.

A grumbler has real reason to say, ‘He’s not that insightful. The jokes are half funny. And those tongue stumbles when he gets excited – I just can’t listen.’ It’s poetic justice that a selfish listener gets no benefit for self.

A good listener is the opposite. This person finds the gold amid the dross, and overlooks odd verbal habits of the preacher. This generous listener is kind to the preacher, and the result is spiritual blessing to the one who hears.

So, as an acknowledgement of our own ‘averageness’, pray for better listeners.



The words in my head in a bike race

I race relatively rarely and very poorly. But I have great conversations inside my head. Here’s some of what I say.

During the race

  • Two minutes in and my heart rate is already too high. I hate that
  • I hate this rise in the road. I wish it looked as hard as it feels
  • Stop staring at that rear hub, stop staring at that rear hub, stop staring …
  • There’s always gravel on this bit. I hate that
  • I’m sure my gears were OK when I rode to the start today. Now they’re clunking
  • Perhaps it’s not the gears making that noise – the brakes are rubbing
  • Mouth so dry, bladder so full. How?
  • Is he working hard? Is she working hard? Am I?
  • I hope I get to the turn-around with the rest of my group. I hate getting dropped before then: do I ride the whole course or just turn around and go home?
  • I hate getting dropped after the turn around. Why didn’t they accelerate 5km earlier and save me 10km of riding?
  • Here’s the place to attack, here’s the place. Attack!
  • That wasn’t the place to attack

After the race

  • That was fun! When’s the next race?



Psalm 10 and living faith

Reading Psalm 10 for church led me to describe three types of people, with different mixes of faith and pattern of life. I came up with three terrible titles (as usual!), so want to try and explain less terribly. (The sermon recording is here.)

Practical atheist
The practical atheist believes and lives as if there is no God. At times he will say, “There is no God” (verse 4), but that’s not a philosophical position. It’s practical: in practice there is not God who does anything. God probably exists, but he’s away: “God has forgotten, he has hidden his face, he will never see it” (verse 11).

For the practical atheist, the existence (or non-existence) of God makes no difference to life. God could be real or false, biblical or Canaanite, powerful or made of ice-cream … If you’re a practical atheist, who cares?

According to Psalm 10, the result of this is arrogant injustice. The practical atheist, once holding any type of power, uses that power against others. ‘The wicked hotly pursue the poor’, “I shall not meet adversity”, ‘in hiding places he murders the innocent’.

Impractical theist
The second type of person I imagined is the direct opposite of the first. This one is a theist – one who knows the truth of God and whose life is shaped by this. The changes would include prayer and other acts of devotion. This person’s understanding is, ‘There is a God, and he sees me.’ There’s a big Amen! to verse 16: ‘The Lord is king for ever and ever’.

But it’s impractical. This person is not moved by the oppression all around. Though not unjust towards the afflicted, he or she has no urge towards justice.

This type of person is not identified in the Psalm. He’s closer to home, for us – for it could be me, or you, or any Christian. We can become immune to the pain of this world. If so, we become different from the Lord (‘you hear the cries of the afflicted’, verse 17).

Practical theist
The third ‘type’ is the practical theist. She cries out with concern, ‘Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’ He prays, ‘Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted.’ This person is very practical and has a soft heart to the downtrodden – especially those of faith’s household (listen to the cries of Revelation 6:10, for example).

The practical theist does not allow a soft heart towards the poor to cause a hard heart towards God. Cries and prayers that apparently border on disrespect to God are really calls for God to be truly known. Effectively, ‘Show them, Lord, that you are present, that you do see, and that you rule with justice!’

The practical theist is the ideal member of God’s kingdom: compassionate and passionate, prayer-filled and theologically deep. The only one to perfectly pray Psalm 10 is Jesus – but Jesus invites all who trust him to become like him.



The value of work

A good question, from the early sixteenth century (from Thomas More’s Utopia):

what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in the things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs?

I don’t propose compulsory rearrangement of pay scales (not necessarily, anyway!), but how foolish it is to value people by the measure of their salary.



Quick review: Honk if you are Jesus

Honk If You Are JesusHonk If You Are Jesus by Peter Goldsworthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very disappointing! A book written by rote, it seems.

I greatly enjoyed Goldsworthy’s Maestro, so had been looking forward to Honk if you are Jesus. I can’t see how it’s the same author.

‘Honk’ is entirely predictable. Every plot turn is telescoped. And the characters! Awful examples of mere types, barely encompassing even two dimensions. There is a lonely-brilliant-cynical woman professor, a fat-gay-epicurean diva, a nagging mum, a two-faced televangelist, a scruffy-brilliant-geneticist, a trophy wife … And these are the filled-out characters!

All this is a pity. Firstly, because I’m convinced Goldsworthy can write. Secondly, because he’s nodded towards a whole library full of fascinating topics.

The story touches on: private tertiary institutions, the decline (or not?) of religion in Australia, genetics, the nature of scientific enquiry, the personality-driven nature of ‘objective’ progress , and the ethics of interference.

These wonderful ingredients, however, are poorly articulated. ‘Honk’ made me feel like it was a neat colour-by-numbers book (#1, make medical expert a cynic with nagging mum, etc).

There is one exception – the last chapter is SO MUCH better than the rest of the book. It has shade and nuance, it’s more reflective, and it hints at (not yells out) a surprising plot twist. The whole book could have been like this!

As a Christian, it’s kind of encouraging to see how poorly this book is written. There’s pressure, both subtle and direct, that tells Christians to butt out of these big topics. I hear the message that Christianity has nothing worthwhile to say about abortion, genetic engineering, medical funding decisions, etc. This book reminds me that so many Christians, simply by being interested in these things, already have a more thought-out point of view than our neighbours who float along with current popular opinion.

So, if you have an idea, speak up! Test it out. Measure the idea by the gospel of Jesus. See how to explain it to a general audience, with varied points of view. And, respectfully, speak. In other words, ‘Honk if you know Jesus.’

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