Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Gift of Good Manners

“5 Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. 6 Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Colossians 4:5,6

In closing his letter to the Colossians, Paul urges a number of common graces upon the believers in Colossae. Knowing that they would be tempted in the cosmopolitan and corrupt city of Colossae to retreat into a holy huddle and be cranky and uptight, Paul imparts to them some closing words of counsel about their actions and their speech.

In regard to our actions, Paul commands us to “walk in wisdom” and to “redeem the time.” Paul urges us to follow the exhortations to wisdom found in Proverbs and other books, particularly in light of the brevity of our lives and the time that the Lord has allotted to each of us on earth. We are to use the gifts and talents that the Lord has afforded us to the best of our ability and for the benefit of others.

This other oriented focus continues in Paul’s exhortation regarding our speech. “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Elsewhere he gives the same basic command urging us to speak in such a way that it “gives grace to those who hear.” Our speech, Paul tells us, is not primarily to serve ourselves but to serve others.

And so, what do these exhortations mean for us? First, they remind us that Paul saw no contrast between the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the wisdom literature, like the Proverbs, in the Old Testament. After all, these words that Paul entrusts to the Colossians were nothing new. Solomon had given the same basic exhortation years before.

“24 Put away from you”, Solomon counsels, “a deceitful mouth,
And put perverse lips far from you.
25 Let your eyes look straight ahead,
And your eyelids look right before you.
26 Ponder the path of your feet,
And let all your ways be established.
27 Do not turn to the right or the left;
Remove your foot from evil.”

Notice then that when Paul urges us to walk in wisdom, he is commanding us to have these proverbs dwell in our hearts and minds. Let us teach them to our children and grandchildren that they might learn what it means to walk in wisdom and redeem the time.

Second, in this passage Paul is endorsing the old-fashioned concept of good manners. For what are manners but simple patterns of behavior that attempt to put others at ease and consider their well-being as more important than our own? Opening the doors for ladies, saying hello and goodbye, saying thank you and you’re welcome – we should view all these trifles as attempts to incarnate Paul’s admonition to let our conduct be characterized by wisdom and our speech seasoned with salt.

There is one particular way in which we can be practicing Paul’s wisdom every week as we gather together. We worship in a facility that is not our own but which we are being permitted to use. As guests in this facility, we need to demonstrate good manners. And so, children, you shouldn’t be climbing over the furniture, playing with things that aren’t ours, or carrying your donuts outside the eating area.

And you, parents, take responsibility for your children. Watch over them with all diligence and teach them the importance of manifesting good manners in their treatment of this facility. But let us not do this in such a way that we too violate the command to have our speech seasoned with grace. We mustn’t yell and scream at our children because we have failed to train them in good manners. Instilling manners into our children is not done on Sunday morning – it must be happening all week so that Sunday morning is nothing new. So the exhortation comes to us: we must impart the grace of manners to our children.

Walk in wisdom, redeem the time, speak with grace – these are the reminders that Paul gives to the Colossians and to us. Reminded how we as a people have failed to fulfill these things, let us kneel and confess this to our Father seeking His forgiveness.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Numbering Our Days

Psalm 90:12 (NKJV)
12 So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom.

John Piper tells the story of an old man converted to Christ through the preaching of Piper’s father. Praying for God’s mercy through his tears, the man cried out, “I’ve wasted it. I’ve wasted it.” So little time he had on earth and he hadn’t devoted it to that which truly mattered.

This past week a friend of mine died. He was 48. A week ago Friday we played tennis together; talked about his children; spoke about the weather; sweated on the court; reflected on John Piper’s book Don’t Waste Your Life. By last Sunday morning he had died and gone on to his reward. This side of the grave we won’t meet again.

Blaise Pascal, the great 17th century mathematician, physicist, and Christian apologist, wrote in his Pensees:
Imagine a number of prisoners on death row, some of whom are killed each day in the sight of the others. The remaining ones see their condition is that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair, await their turn. This is a picture of the human condition…The last scene of the play is bloody, however fine the rest of it. They throw earth over your head, and it is finished forever.
It was this awareness of the transitory nature of life that moved Moses to cry out to God in our psalm today, “So teach us to number our days, That we may gain a heart of wisdom.” When we are confronted with death it is our opportunity to remember that our days are numbered. We will not live forever. God has set our appointed time on earth and when the number of those days comes to a close then our time here will end as well. Because God has numbered our days, Moses asks the Lord to teach us to number them as well. Teach us to count the number of days we have here on earth, to consider that the time we have before death is short.

What is the purpose of this numbering? So that we might have a morbid fascination with death? Dress in black and be morose? Be like the ancient Egyptians, who had a wooden corpse in their homes that they might bring it out in the midst of their parties and show their guests, declaring, “Look on this while you drink, for this will be your lot when you are dead”? Is this why we should learn to number our days?

No. The purpose is so that we may gain a heart of wisdom. What does a heart of wisdom look like? First, it reckons with the vanity of life and the inevitability of death. Pascal notes:

Nothing is of more importance to man than his state, nothing more fearful than eternity. It is unnatural that there should be people who are indifferent to the loss of their life and careless of the peril of an eternity of unhappiness. They react very differently to everything else. They are afraid of the least things that they anticipate and feel. The same person who spends nights and days in a rage, in the agony of despair over the loss of some status or imaginary affront to his reputation, is the same person who knows he will lose everything by death and shows neither concern nor emotion at the prospect. It is extraordinary to see in the same heart and at the same time this concern for the most trivial matters, and yet lack of concern for the greatest.
But the heart of wisdom does not betray this folly. It knows the imperative of reckoning with death, of being ready to face eternity. And so, the heart of wisdom trusts in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the only means to reconcile a sinner to a holy God. Nothing in my hand I bring, says the old hymn, simply to Thy cross I cling.

Second, the heart of wisdom lives fully and completely for the glory and grandeur of God. What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. A heart of wisdom knows that we were created to find our great joy and gladness in union and communion with God. And so the man who has learned to number his days has learned to spend every one of them in passionate enjoyment of the Living God.

Unfortunately we often waste our days rather than number them. We move from one day to the next with little thought or reflection, distracted by trinkets rather than devoted to the glory of God. Reminded that we are to number our days, that we are to present to the Lord a heart of wisdom, let us kneel and confess our sins in the Name of Christ.