Repost: Reviewing Life’s Difficult Decisions from a Distance

Kay and I were 35 and serving a growing church in Western Canada back in the 1950s. After five years of rich ministry there we received an unsolicited phone call from a conference superintendent inviting us to come and serve a congregation in the mid-western United States. The church was a broad and challenging field of service and included large numbers of college students. He said that he and his committee were sure we were a match.

The invitation created conflict. We loved the people where we were and they loved us. The growth of the church was strong and exciting. We also loved the city and our children were settled in a good school. Why, then, might we accept? Because the challenge of this invitation also had its strong pull. I had even told a favorite professor while in seminary that I was interested in being a college pastor someday. Here, it seemed, was the opportunity.

Day after day I wrestled with the invitation. Kathleen did the same. We talked over the pros and cons. We committed the issue repeatedly to prayer. In the end, Kathleen entrusted the decision largely to me with one stipulation: our profoundly disabled son, John David, would not have to be moved. He was happily situated and well cared for in a nearby institution.

The dilemma we struggled with was not about furthering my career. I was ordained for a lifetime of ministry and we were trying to live out a calling — a vocation — not merely a career. The decision had to be in harmony with a divinely-approved plan. In our denomination a conference Ministerial Appointments Committee assigns ordained personnel to their place of service, while moving from one conference to another is more of a personal decision.

One morning I went from my study into the sanctuary of the church and knelt by a green pulpit chair. I had to decide. In that moment of anguish, with resolute finality, I believed I knew the answer. We would go. I told Kathleen. I phoned to inform the conference superintendent.

We weren’t prepared for what followed. When we told our congregation and leaders of our conference we became acutely aware of the strength of the bond between us. There was grieving to the point of tears on both sides. We felt forlorn and bereft, as did our congregation. I now question from a position of greater maturity: Could we have broken the news better? More gradually?

In my distress, I phoned the superintendent who had invited us. I told him I had given his committee my word and would not break it but asked if he would release me from my commitment. He would not, he said, because his Appointments Committee was counting on my coming. That closed the door with a thud.

My turmoil was so overwhelming that I walked the streets of our city seeking relief from a kind of deep suffering. Kay and I both lived with this anguish for several weeks.

Then, with the furniture we had put up for sale beginning to disappear, the reality of our move became tangible. Finally, on the day of our departure, two members of our congregation took us and our three children, Carolyn, 12, Donald, 9, and Robert, 7, to the train for our trip across Canada. We would stop a few days with family in Ontario and then enter the United States at Detroit to buy a used car there and start the 400-mile trek to our new field of service 250 miles south of Chicago.

We grieved painfully for at least a year: first for the loss of our beloved and lively congregation, then for the loss of an urban environment we had come to love and the beautiful landscape of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia ringed by mountains.

And it took us that same year to become comfortable with a less active college church congregation in a very different community. But we see all of this now as the inevitable stress of making a major change. And, painful though it was, we also see it as God’s will for us at that time.

That move began a thirteen-year ministry at a college center with many heart-to-heart interactions, many lifelong friendships, countless treasured memories, and numerous ministry connections and responsibilities locally, across the continent, and beyond. We still hear from people speaking of the help they received in their Christian journey during those years, or at this or that crucial time of decision. Some were students back then and now are grandparents living in retirement.

Knowing God’s will is a mysterious undertaking. As we pore prayerfully over the issues and dilemmas of life, we do not always arrive immediately at a sense of certainty that introduces calm and security. Sometimes, in fact, we only see clearly, weeks, months, or even years later, that we have made the right decision.

And it is some comfort to know that even when we must proceed without a clear answer to our prayers for guidance, or when in our humanity we choose less than the best path, our Lord can confirm our decision or redeem our blunders or missteps. His Spirit is available for every need, and his Providence is a great consolation to those who sincerely attempt to live in obedience to him by faith.

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Scriptural Clarity for a Soft-Minded Age

As the telephone repairman connected new wires to the black box in our basement, he asked about my work. I told him I was a minister.

He pondered this briefly, then asked the location of my parish. I had most recently been a church overseer of many churches for a Protestant denomination, I told him. I hadn’t had responsibility for a particular congregation during that time.

He offered that he was Catholic. I asked gently if he was active in his church. Immediately I detected inner conflict in his responses.

The Catholic Church is just out of date these days, he complained. It’s back in the dark ages. The contraception matter was one issue. Women should have a right to choose. He thought that abortion should be avoided, but what about a list of extenuating circumstances? All of this tumbled out of him in obvious frustration.

He was also angry because the priest of his parish had refused to confirm his 12-year-old son. The reason the priest gave was that he didn’t ever see the boy’s parents in church.

But, I inquired, you still want to be a Catholic?

Yes, he answered without hesitation.

That was the reason for his conflict. He wanted to be a Catholic — but felt he should be able to participate on his terms.

He was reflecting what some call the modern mind. For people with that mindset, God may exist but his fundamental nature and requirements should be of each individual’s design. And he could be kept mostly out of sight except for emergencies. Thus it was acceptable for standards of morality to become fluid and vague.

When such persons encounter firm moral demands of an institution such as the Catholic Church, they tend to be both angry and conflicted. For this repairman, it seemed to me, there were no external standards of morality. It seemed he wanted to determine personally and with finality what was right. He could therefore remain marginally connected to his church while being angry at it because it wasn’t more modern.

My anecdote is but one example of this phenomenon. Consider another: the case of a daughter of prominent members of an Evangelical church who cohabited openly with a man for nine years and then decided she should have a big church wedding.

She approached her parents’ pastor. She wanted a full-scale event in the church sanctuary with all the usual embellishments, and a guest list of 200. The pastor put forward an alternative way to help this couple out. She refused his offer of a private wedding.

She could not understand why her request would create moral tension for pastor and church board. She thought she had a right to this celebration. It was to be a “rite of passage.”

But as the church saw it, she and her mate had made that passage on their own in a very public way nine years earlier. There was no “new beginning” to be celebrated. Moreover, the words of the wedding ritual would ring false to the listening congregation. For them it would be an issue of truth and honesty in the presence of God.

I rush to add that in this kind of circumstance, today’s Evangelical church is mandated by Scripture to love as Jesus did, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with firmness. But the church is called to love truthfully.

The Apostle John writes to his “true friend Gaius” thus: “It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in it” (3 John 3).

The truth John had in mind was the truth of the gospel of Christ as elaborated in the Christian scriptures. Should not established doctrines and truthful procedures grow out of revealed truth in timeless and trustworthy Scripture, making today’s churches clear-minded in this age of moral softness?

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Paul’s Call to a More Wholesome Thought Life

Late in his life the Apostle Paul was a prisoner in Rome. While there he was allowed to engage his own dwelling but was chained to a guard by a short chain (Philippians 1:7, 13,14).

Remarkably, he did not let this break his connection with churches he had planted. One of them was the church at Philippi in Macedonia. His ancient letter to the Philippians still blesses the church universal to this day when it is read and studied.

Consider a short portion of the letter in which the apostle exhorts Christians to “Christianize” their minds further (Philippians 4:8-9).

He writes, in verse 8: “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about those things.” We can call this an exercise for enriching the Christian mind.

Whatever is true. Christians believe that God is the essence of truth. He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He is the source of all that exists, the Creator and Sustainer of all things: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To this conviction the Psalmist writes: “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). On these truths about God and his word, Christians are to lodge their thought lives.

Think of the witness Christians can have in a world saturated with untruths: scams, frauds, hoaxes, shady schemes, and intentional deceptions. When we become Christians we are still in that world, but, with the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, we are challenged to stand against these things and to cultivate new thought patterns to exalt and glorify God.

Whatever Is noble. We can speculate that the apostle, upon noticing the vulgar language and behavior all around him, called Christians to raise even their hidden thoughts to an elevated and righteous level. I think here in particular of the crucial importance of avoiding the scourge of pornography that defiles, cheapens, even twists the mind. Without question, the Christian faith raises our thoughts to a much more elevated standard.

Whatever is right. William Barclay writes: “It is a law of life that, if a person thinks of something often enough and long enough, they will come to a stage when they cannot stop thinking about it. Their thoughts will become quite literally in a groove out of which they cannot jerk themselves.” (Since “right” is related to “righteousness,” we can see what Paul’s assignment here is.)

Whatever is pure. The Scriptures repeatedly set purity of heart as a primary goal for all believers: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Purity is the cry of the penitent. As King David prayed after sinning grievously: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10). And as Paul says: “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). God plants in his children’s minds our heart’s longing to be pure and we must respond in agreement.

Whatever is lovely. Elsewhere in his Galatian letter the apostle gathers a list that demonstrates what he considers lovely — he calls this list the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). They are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When these qualities rule in the heart they beautify the outer life.

Whatever is admirable. Could this mean “that which calls forth love,” as one scholar suggests? Have we not all had contact with believers whose smiles and greetings are under nearly all circumstances warm and attractive, rooted in the heart, such that we cannot help but admire them?

At this point the apostle changes the structure of his sentence to add “excellence” and “praiseworthiness” to his list — two final descriptive words that make his catalogue complete. He does not suggest that the eight traits will blossom fully and automatically or overnight.

But they will advance when we meet two conditions. First, when we open our hearts to a fuller ownership of the Holy Spirit in all things. And second, when we organize our lives around the Scriptures daily and in company with other believers.

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Are We Walking in the Light?

By my reckoning I have been in total darkness only once in my lifetime — coal-black, impenetrable darkness!

Kathleen and I and our three young children were returning from a camping vacation in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri to our home in Central Illinois. As we sped toward the Mississippi River, signs began to announce that we were approaching the famous Meramec Caverns that draw many thousands of visitors each year.

“Why not have one more thrill before we get home,” we suggested to the children. There were cheers all around. We were soon parked and quickly entered the anteroom of a large cave. Our group of tourists was ready for the march inward.

We followed a string of lights high above our heads deeper into the cave. It was an unfamiliar, weird, and wonderful world of several giant “rooms.” The path sloped slightly downward and as we moved along, our guide pointed out the wonders of stalactites and stalagmites (and more) before us.

At the deepest point in the tour we were taken into the final room carved out of the earthen depths, with twenty chairs arranged in two rows. Our guide told us that he would turn off the light for a few seconds, preparing us to feel utterly isolated and almost disoriented by the absolute lack of light.

Kay and I sat shoulder to shoulder. When the one ceiling light was switched off I could still feel her shoulder against mine. But turning toward her I could not see the outline of her head or any features of her face. The darkness was abject. I felt surrounded by a curtain of thick inky blackness.

Most people would think they’ve experienced total darkness, but a few “photons” here and there are almost always available. Even closed eyelids are rarely able to screen out every vestige of light. And of course, in the modern world, anywhere inhabited by humans will have a bit of illumination from the lights on porches, shining from windows, or the headlamps of cars.

Experiences of extreme darkness are much better known in the world of the Bible, before the availability of artificial light. And, notably, the Scriptures begin with knowledge of a primordial utter darkness that had to be dispelled as the first step toward Creation:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:2-3).

Later, the Bible treats darkness also as a symbol, using the absence of light to represent evil or mystery or wickedness. It is opposite to the goodness of light.

Old Testament Job, in spite of his perplexity at his profound suffering, says: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face” (Job 23:17).

Jeremiah warns the stubborn people of Israel that they must repent of their unfaithfulness to avoid being visited by darkness: “Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness …” (Jeremiah 13:16a).

The Apostle Paul uses darkness as an analogy for a willful lack of knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 4:3-6).

And perhaps most famously, the Apostle John in the New Testament makes great use of this analogy to teach and caution the young church. He writes:

This is the message we have heard from him and declared to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

When we have inner darkness our every step is cast in gloom. The darkness diminishes our hope. The darkness of which the Apostle John speaks is often of our own doing and our shame. But it does not need to be so. The Gospel light is available to all.

The Apostle Paul writes of the Lord Jesus: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13).

Jesus is still the light of the world offered to all who will believe.

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We Need Courageous Leadership

Two nights ago Kathleen and I had an extended conversation about what constitutes strong moral leadership. What will it take to produce it in greater measure at all levels of a troubled society?

It’s a big topic for two 94-year-olds retired from public life and with no platform from which to speak. But we had just watched American news coverage of protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman.

We had seen the walls of large buildings torched in some of America’s major cities. Streets were crowded with people, mostly young, who were demonstrating in an orderly way. But the fires were being set by another group whose obvious intention was to destroy everything of value.

Our conversation touched on the inner human commitments that tend to make for strong character when taught and promoted. It was not about styles of leadership. There are plenty of courses, seminars, and videos attempting to address them.

It was rather about core qualities: wisdom, righteousness, and commitment to justice.

We knew that authentic righteousness requires that our thoughts and actions align with God’s moral law (Exodus 20:1-17). Justice seems to us to be the result of a human conscience aligned with God’s law written on our hearts, enacted into rule by law. And if we disobey such a conscience, and righteous rule by law, we damage character and deny justice.

Justice requires that both sides in a dispute be treated equally. To be just in a court of law is a most demanding challenge, and some say justice is always an approximation. Yet in everyday life fairness can be discerned as a reachable standard.

Leaders who operate from power, emotion, personal animus, empathy alone, prejudice, or taste will quickly be seen to be unjust or weak, inflaming observers. And, of course, leadership based on subjective/relativistic notions of morality will come to be seen as puny and capricious.

In the course of our conversation about leadership Kathleen reminded me of a Sunday-school song written a century and a half ago by an Episcopalian clergyman named Philips Brooks. It was about the prophet Daniel, the young Jewish lad who had been taken as a captive from Israel to Babylon to be trained as a civil servant. There, he was twice at imminent risk of unjust execution (the second time cast into the lion’s den because he would not worship an image of the king of Babylon).

Here are the words of a refrain we sang 85 or so years ago:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

The morning after Kathleen’s and my earnest discussion about higher leadership I went to the little “den” of our apartment and read with delight the early part of the Book of Daniel. I read how with utmost courtesy he stood like a rock on issues of importance, to his own peril. And how the Lord was powerfully with him.

And I like to think that today, too, we can say with Daniel (2:20-22):

Praise be to the name of God forever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.

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Giving Prayer Its Proper Place

A loaded ferry was crossing a large body of water when a storm blew up. Rain pelted the upper deck; angry waves swept across the lower deck. Frightened passengers hunkered down in the cabin, fearing for their lives.

One woman asked the captain, “Whatever can we do?”

The captain answered, “We must pray.”

“Good heavens,” the woman replied, “has it come to that?”

There may be a touch of humor in the woman’s response, but to hint that prayer is only for life’s most perilous moments is to cheapen and gravely narrow it.

The Apostle Paul showed by implication how precious prayer should be at all times when he said, “In (God) we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

For Christians, where does prayer fit into the whole scheme of things? When the storms of life break upon us, is prayer our first thought or our last resort?

We look to the life of our Lord Jesus for an answer.

Jesus, recall, was God in human form. We know he limited himself in this way in order to fully experience our humanness. He was as much man as he was God, and as much God as he was man, one ancient creed declares.

At various times, the crowds favored him (John 12:12-19), and at other times they hated him with a vengeance (Luke 23:23). In all this, where did Jesus place the practice of communing with the Father in prayer?

First, we learn from the Gospel accounts that Jesus prayed in a multitude of circumstances, showing us that the Father is approachable at all times.

For example, Jesus prayed in moments of great joy: “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children …’ “ (Luke 10:21). We follow his example when we have learned to turn our joys into prayers.

Jesus also turned to prayer during vexing days of ministry. One example is his private prayer on a mountainside long into the evening to renew his strength after he had performed a night-time miracle on the Lake of Galilee.

In the gospel of Matthew, 14:23-24, we are told: “After he had dismissed (the crowd) he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” We are also told that shortly before dawn, Jesus came down, and  walked across the surface of the lake to his disciples’ boat. For some time between the two events he was in prayer (Matthew 14:23-33).

Earlier, Jesus prayed before selecting from among his large group of followers the twelve he would assign as apostles. The process began on the mountainside (really, a large hill). As we learn in Luke 6:13, “When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles.” These were to be his inner circle of leaders, selected and set apart only after hours of prayer.

And of course he prayed on the brutal cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And later, “Into my hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

For Jesus, prayer was not the last element of facing the joys and stresses of life; it was the first. The range of his prayers was sweeping and for all circumstances. And throughout all our days, whether we are joyful, distressed, or suffering, we must never let ourselves forget that.

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Growing Old with Grace

During our student days, most of us came across Robert Browning’s poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra.”

Rabbi Ben Ezra was a 12th-century Spanish scholar, and this poem imagined what he might have said about growing old. The poem’s attitude toward aging is very positive. Its first lines read thus:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half: trust God; see all, nor be afraid!”

I attended a lecture in British Columbia years ago in which a recognized Canadian poet denounced Browning’s poem. She spoke of it with disgust. She was perhaps 60, so past mid-life, and she seemed to me most unhappy about what she had to look forward to.

She was and is not alone with such feelings. Some years ago, a minister friend sent me a newspaper op-ed piece published in the Whig-Standard in Kingston, Ontario. The headline writer titled the piece, “You’ve Got to Be Tough to Stand Growing Old.”

The point the writer of the article made is that people who are above retirement age do not always get a respectful treatment from society, and he cited statistics that bear this out.

According to a study those years ago, done by Leger Marketing, 80% of Canadians then believed that people 75 years and older are viewed by society as less important, and more than a third of respondents admitted to treating seniors “differently.”

At the same time, 41% of seniors said they had been ignored or treated as invisible; 38% felt they had nothing more to contribute; and 27% found they were assumed to be incompetent. They even claimed that in some doctors’ offices their symptoms were too easily written off as the result of having had too many birthdays.

All of that sounds bleak and probably reflects reality to some degree — with many positive exceptions, of course. We call ours a youth-oriented culture, and that seems accurate. Approaching 95, I should know. Staying well and strong and active is a worthy goal so long as it’s not an obsession or a futile anxiety about death.

It is possible to affirm our span of years in this life: Our doctor son has a Christian patient who introduced him to a very useful saying at the time of the death of her elderly husband. With a gentle, sad smile of composure she said, “Well, doctor, none of us come here to stay.

This introductory section of Browning’s dramatic monologue is decidedly Christian, even though it doesn’t point to the afterlife. It offers an understanding that we must make the most of every period of this life — youth and old age. He would say that it’s not youth that is the high point, with the last part of life a leftover to be endured. And it’s not the opposite. Youth and old age together make up the whole of life.

Of advanced and uncharted years ahead he writes, “The best is yet to be.” He contends further that the last of life is intended to benefit from the first which really is life’s staging phase. The point that stands out is his summons to “Trust God” and we Christians can have a radiant and confident faith in God because “our times are in his hand” (Psalm 31:15).

When we realize how much we are loved by God and how generous he is toward us — all of which is communicated to us through Jesus Christ — we can face the uncertainties of this and every day in resolute, courageous, and restful faith.

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The Power of a Special “Good Word”

How should ordained pastors close a service of worship? Dismiss the people with a hand signal? Announce a hymn? Offer a closing prayer? Exhort them to go out and be good witnesses for the Lord?

All four means have been used, but there is one better. It is to pronounce over them a benediction. In other words, bless them in the name of the Lord, and send them away with the assurance that the Lord will go with them.

That’s what a benediction is. It is a “good word” pronounced over the Lord’s people in the Lord’s name. Numbers 6:22-27 introduces us to the great priestly benediction. God ordered Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to use this blessing to dismiss a gathering of his people. The priest was to raise his hands and say:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

In this Old Testament blessing there is, by the way, a preview of the mystery of the Trinity. Note the threefold reference to “the Lord.” That is, as you go out from here, the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — will be with you.

God’s instructions to Moses for the priestly blessing make it clear that this benediction is not a collection of empty words. The Lord tells Moses that when it is pronounced, “So will I put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” It is a promise of God’s favor.

Some pastors may feel that this is all too Old Testament and priestly. It might help them to be reminded that, when rightly understood, the pastor’s ministry is both prophetic and priestly. Think of such priestly ministries as the pastoral prayer, the wedding ritual, the serving of the sacraments, or the graveside sentences. In these, pastors are carrying out the priestly aspect of their calling.

The blessing of God’s people at the close of a service of worship is one more wonderful privilege contained in a pastor’s ordination.

A benediction is important because a local congregation does not cease to exist when it disperses. A local church can be considered both a gathered and a scattered community. When together for worship, it is gathered. When its people disperse to their many locations, it is scattered. In both cases it is still a church. St. Peter, for example, wrote an epistle to the church “scattered” abroad.

How appropriate it is, then, that before believers leave their place of assembly they are sent forth to take up their varied stations with a promise that God will also be with them in their many and sometimes isolated locations.

During the week ahead of you, here’s my benediction for you, my dear reader, from Hebrews 13:20-21:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

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Finding a Woman of Noble Character

As Mother’s Day passes I think of Kathleen, my wife of 72 years, my daughter Carolyn, daughters-in-law June and Jan, and the younger mothers in the family seeking to follow in their train. I pay them all tribute with these words of wisdom from the passage behind this week’s blog.

Proverbs 31:10-31: Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all (verses 28-29).

This chapter is entitled in the New International Version “The Wife of Noble Character.” It is cast in the form of Hebrew poetry and is lodged in the ancient wisdom literature of the Bible.

There is nothing in this poem about faith or salvation or the life to come. Only once “the fear of the Lord” is mentioned. There is not even a word about romance. It focuses instead on the character and traits of the many noble women who are out there to be sought out.

Proverbs 31 was written well over two thousand years ago and yet appears to extol what I taught my children to look for in their life partners, whether husband or wife — strengths of head, heart, and hand. That is, look for someone who has a thoughtful grasp on life, who at the same time has deep moral and relational principles, and who is energetic and not afraid of hard work.

And in the case of this passage, when she is found she will bring blessings on her husband and family in their work and relationships. (The same could be said for seeking out a husband of noble character.)

I have read this wisdom poem many times across a lifetime, but my most recent reading left me at first perplexed: Where is the young woman who meets all these qualifications: She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family … (15). She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard (16). She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26). And so on. The demands on her are overwhelming. Can such specific qualifications be met?

But looking deeper into these many fine qualities sheds more light. I look more clearly and see that the issue is not the specific actions but the traits they represent: she is to be energetic, wise, resourceful, noble, and so forth. She has much to bring to a marriage, family, the work world, and society: When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet (21).

The composer of this wisdom poem closes with a knife-sharp cautionary word plus a generous commendation.

The knife-sharp warning: Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting (30a). That is, as enticing as charm or beauty may be, don’t let them be primary goals in your search. Look rather for the deeper strengths of head, heart, and hand. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue (26).

The poet’s commendation follows: But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (30b). Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate (31). And don’t overlook the central requirement that she have a heart that fears the Lord.

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Attention! The Elderly May Be Listening

The following story may remind readers that the aging body can often be accompanied by a surprisingly clear mind — and human dignity as well.

In this story, an elderly man of great wealth suffered from some of the physical effects of aging, and in particular, from hearing loss.

He sat in the family room much of the time, eyes usually cast down, while his household buzzed with the comings and goings of two succeeding generations. He took little part in the conversations, largely because family members seldom made the effort to include him.

One day he learned about a hearing specialist in a nearby city who had developed a simple procedure to greatly improve the hearing of his elderly patients.

The wealthy man made an appointment and had the procedure done.

He returned to his home to resume his position in the family room — eyes still cast down and sitting in silence amidst the sea of chatter that washed back and forth constantly.

When he returned to the physician’s clinic six weeks later he was asked if his hearing had improved. He replied, “It certainly has, and I’ve changed my will three times.”

For ancient Israel, respect for the elderly was a holiness issue. It is addressed in the holiness code found in Leviticus 19 along with the sins of defrauding a neighbor and spreading slander.

Late in that chapter we learn that where the elderly are involved, the Lord is watching. Leviticus 19:32 says, “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God; I am Jehovah.”

For Christians both young and old, this admonition doesn’t necessarily mean that we literally stand as in days of old. It does instruct us, however, to respect in appropriate ways those who are elderly and frail, because the Lord God is observing the degree of our respect.

And people around us are, too. Taking the extra effort to respect and include the elderly will bring grace to relationships and a powerful witness to society at large of God’s work in our lives.

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Photo credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono (via flickr.com)