Sunday, June 20, 2010

An Apt Word


A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Proverbs 25:11

Knowing what to speak, to whom to speak and when to speak is a function of godly wisdom. "It is only fools who speak all the time, without regard for the circumstance ... The wisdom formula is to speak the right word to the right person at the right time" (Longman, 453).

A well-timed word has several positive attributes to it. One, it reaffirms our value. A teenager cut from the basketball team, a husband and father terminated from his job, a wife reeling from an unsought-for divorce all suffer from devastating hits to their lives and psyches, pain felt very deeply within their being. A corollary to such blows is that we question our own worth or value. We have, after all, just been rejected by a team, business and relationship from which we drew a significant sense of our own identity. We may wonder if we will ever find another place or person to belong to. A well-timed word at this juncture can rescue us from swimming in the sea of self-doubt and reaffirm that we are people of worth.

Two, an apt word refocuses our vision. Lingering in the shadow of our damaged self-worth is blurred vision. The future looks foggy at best, and any vision we may have left is bleak, even ominous and threatening. It is natural that from the humiliating defeats and emotionally disturbing setbacks would come reticence to face the future. What lies ahead? If I have failed now, what prospects do I have for better results in the future? If I have been rejected, can genuine love ever find me again? A timely word to such a person is one that considers their circumstances, acknowledges the pain and uncertainty choking their heart, and offers even the slightest vision that the future can be faced.

Three, an appropriate word is one that rekindles hope. The future is very uninviting when it seems to offer only prospects of continued gloom and doom. Living with the fear of never belonging again, lacking financial resources or having no one to bond intimately with is gloomy. But that well-timed word, if embedded and nurtured in the heart of the sufferer, can eventually sprout and grow, offering vision and hope of a brighter future that we can participate in.

Finally, a well-timed word can even deliver necessary rebuke. To rebuke someone is to expose them to the truth of their situation, their attitude or behavior, and the appropriate response they need to make. Rebuke is usually appropriate for someone who persists in inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Rebuke may not apply initially to someone struggling with situations of rejection and hurt as I descried above, but, there may come a time when even they need a gentle nudge to open their eyes. "Ok, you lost your job, I’m very sorry. But you are not likely to find another job by watching tv all day, seven days a week. It’s time to pull yourself together and get back out there." It may seem out of place discussing rebuke after describing an apt reply as one that reaffirms value, refocuses vision and rekindles hope. But, an apt reply isn’t limited to situations of encouraging the broken-hearted; it can also apply to those pursuing paths that can render them hard-hearted. (For more discussion of an apt reply functioning as rebuke, see the essay "Judicial Decisions).

The finesse of Jesus’ response to the woman entrapped in sin demonstrates the power of the apt reply. Even if she didn’t know the law the woman knew the Pharisees initially advocated stoning her. That is quite a blow to one’s self-composure and image! Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you." But he didn’t withhold rebuke. "Leave your life of sin," he said next. He acknowledged her sin and told her to abandon it, choosing instead to live morally and spiritually. With this gentle rebuke and freedom from condemnation, the woman’s value was affirmed and was she free to envision a future of hope and second chances (John 8:1-11).

An apt word delivered to a hurting soul is "a masterpiece of human art" (Bland, 225), comparable to richly designed apples of gold in settings of silver. The beauty of both enrich our lives and testify to the wisdom and skill of the master artisan who crafted them.

Warren Baldwin

Sunday, June 13, 2010



Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. Proverbs 26:20-21

A lightening strike, a dropped cigarette or a campfire not properly extinguished can smolder for days, finally igniting a few dry leaves culminating in a forest fire that can burn for weeks, even months. Trees and homes miles away from the spot where the fire began can be torched in minutes from the inferno unleashed by that original smoldering ember. Under the right conditions, forest fires can become impossible for even multiple teams of fire fighters to put out. It may take the arrival of fall snows to finally extinguish the blaze. Or, as the sage says, a fire may not play out until it is deprived of a substance to burn. There is a three-step progression in the scenario I have just presented: a smoldering ember, dry kindling, and finally, a raging fire.

A similar three-step progression is present in these two verses in Proverbs. First, there is the smoldering ember, a quarrel between two people. Then there is the dry kindling to feed that ember and give it greater life, gossip. Gossip is the spreading of tales by the participants in the quarrel. With enough time and gossip the third step is realized, strife. The quarrelsome man who can’t or won’t keep his discontent or disagreement contained, but must spread it through the kindling of gossip, fuels the fire until it becomes a bitter conflict involving numerous parties. Strife, or discord, is one of the acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:20), and it can burn out of control, scorching and burning people miles away from the original smoldering ember.

A quarrel is simply a verbal battle between two people. There is usually some degree of heat and flame of emotions in the verbal feud, but in time quarrels usually die down.

Like a fire, though, quarrels can be fed highly combustible material. For a fire it is dry wood; for a quarrel it is gossip. Gossip in this verse also means whisper in Hebrew. The idea is that one is going around on the sly whispering damaging things against someone else’s character and position. Should one or more of the participants in the quarrel take their grievances to others, not for wise counsel on how to handle the situation but rather to whisper against and slander the other party, then more people are dragged into the fray. Soon five, six, even ten or more people may be agitated and riled up against each other, and they may not even know why!

I have seen situations of two people frothing in anger against each other over what other parties in the quarrel had told them. These guys were not original participants, and didn’t even know all the details of the initial argument. They were just dragged in and began burning like dry timber and they didn’t even know why. Situations like this can erupt at work and church, burning with a fury that can last for weeks. It may not die out until everyone involved is literally exhausted and singed from the heat of the verbal and emotional blaze.

After once such inferno I asked a participant in that holocaust, "What happened? What was going on to create such a blaze where people were fighting and seemed to hate each other?" She said, "I don’t know. Everyone was just so angry and excited and saying things that were so mean. I don’t know how it started and why it went on for so long. But it was very ugly and unnecessary."

It started as a disagreement between two people that became a quarrel. The quarrel was not allowed to die down but was fed with the kindling of gossip and slander, causing it to burn hotter and wider. Soon, a dozen people were sucked into the blaze of bitter conflict, angry, hot, and ready to do battle on a larger scale. And no one really knew why.

Quarrels, gossip and strife are the external manifestations of a deeper issue in the heart of the one engaged in this unholy activities. The inner issue is and evil and malicious spirit. The evil spirit of one who creates discord and contention among other people is discussed in the next several verses, where the Sage says, "A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit" (Prov. 26:24). Verse 26 says his wickedness will be eventually become known.

Families, churches, businesses and community programs can be devastated in the incineration caused by the slanderer. To protect yourself and those around you, simply do not engage this man or woman. Only by joint refusal to participate in the ungodly triad of quarrels, gossip and strife can we starve the fire of fuel and save our relationships.

Warren Baldwin

Friday, June 4, 2010

Silence in the Face of Danger


If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength! Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, "But we knew nothing about this," does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done? Proverbs 24:10-12

Kitty Genovese was returning home from work in Queens, New York at 3:20 a.m. While walking to the door of her apartment building she noticed a man at the other end of the parking lot, so she turned away. The man came after Kitty and attacked her with a knife. Kitty, age, 28, cried out, "Oh, my God, he stabbed me. Please help me! Please help me!" Her screams woke people up in the surrounding apartments. Lights came on, windows opened, and one man even yelled, "Let that girl alone!"

The assailant left and the windows closed and lights went out. But then the attacker returned and stabbed Kitty again. When she screamed, "I’m dying! I’m dying!" the lights came back on and the assailant left the scene. Kitty managed to make it into her apartment building where she collapsed on the floor at the foot of her stairs. Yet again the assailant returned, and this time he succeeded in killing the young woman.

There were three separate attacks Kitty Genovese over a thirty-five minute period. Scores of neighbors heard her screams and at least thirty actually witnessed one of the attacks. Yet other than one man yelling at the murderer during the first assault, not one witness intervened against the attacker, came to her aid, or even called the police. Only after the third attack were police summoned, and when they arrived Kitty had already died.

"If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength! Rescue those being led away to death; hold back, or defend, those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive your denial?"

In commenting on the evil perpetrated against Kitty Genovese, Cornelius Plantinga says, "To shut one’s eyes to an injustice, to look the other way, to pretend ignorance of evil - to do these things is to connive. We generally think of connivance as a case of active conspiracy, but it needn’t be and often isn’t." (Not the Way it is Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, p.182-84). Abstaining from actively harming others doesn’t mean we are necessarily free from guilt in any injury they receive. We implicate ourselves by our refusal to come to their aid, to defend them and, at the least, to speak out in their behalf.

When asked why they didn’t help the screaming woman below their apartment windows, neighbors of Kitty offered such excuses as they didn’t want to get involved, they were too tired, or they didn’t know why. "Does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?"

"Those in a position to help in difficult, dangerous circumstances are tempted to deny reality ... Some people think that any potential danger to self or family frees them from moral obligation to do good. This view, in thought and deed, entails the moral and spiritual collapse of a society. It stands under the judgment of the One who sees through human self-deception and denial of reality." (Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Proverbs in New Interpreter’s Bible, 5:214)
The man who walks the path of godly righteousness can not content himself with the thought that he has not actively harmed others. Wilfully turning a blind eye to abuse, murder, gossip, slander, character assassination or any other evil perpetrated against innocent people is to connive in their harm as surely as the ones actively engaged in the violence. To seek the righteousness of God means we cry out for justice, rebuke the evil, and offer assistance to the hurt and injured. Doing so may mean we place ourselves in harms way. But it may also mean we will never be more like Jesus than when we do.

Warren Baldwin

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Healing in Community


When Jesus entered the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd, he said, "Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep." But they laughed at him. After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up. Matthew 9:23-25

The amazing power of Jesus to counteract the forces of nature still astounds those who follow him. Driving winds were reduced to gentle breezes. Gravity quit working. Disease, death and decay relinquished their victims.

The most touching displays of Jesus miraculous power was in this last area of disease and death. People struggling under spinal deformation, blindness, unholy spirits and even death were freed instantly from the grip of these unwelcome invaders of the human body. While miracles alone didn’t convince everyone Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah, his mighty displays of power did arouse attention and wonder. People flocked to hear Jesus speak, see him perform miracles and, hopefully, have him transform their own bodies and spirits.

Physical suffering, especially when it is prolonged, attacks not only the body but also our minds. Physically afflicted people can become downcast and depressed. They can lose the will to fight their disease and succumb to it. This process works in reverse as well; those who are depressed can invite invaders into their bodies, rendering them physically ill. To those suffering from emotional or spiritual attack, the intervention of Jesus into their lives to heal and deliver brought joy and celebration.

That same healing work is needed today. Disease still wracks bodies, unholy spirits still assault our souls and hearts, and death still summons. How often have we wished we could simply wave our hands or speak the words and loved ones we grieved over would open their eyes? But we lack some of that healing power of Jesus. But we don’t lack all healing power.

M. Scott Peck took a break from a community-building seminar he was conducting. On the way to his room he saw a woman with a towel around her heard in obvious discomfort. "What’s the matter?" he asked her. In obvious agony the woman mumbled, "I’ve got a migraine."

The woman then said she was very angry. When Peck asked what she was angry at she said she was mad at the "charismatic phonies" who pretend they are spiritual. Peck replied that she might be right about some of them, but others may just be having fun. To this the woman replied, "I’ve never had fun." Peck told her hoped she could someday. Later that afternoon he saw the woman in better spirits and heard her telling others, "Dr. Peck healed me. I’ve never had fun. Dr. Peck healed me."

How did this medical doctor and psychiatrist account for such a seemingly-miraculous recovery for this woman from her painful migraine? His explanation is something for all of us who are Christians to consider, especially when we consider all of the suffering and dislocation that abounds in so many lives. Dr. Peck said,

"The best psychotherapists eventually learn, if they hang in there long enough, is to stop trying to heal their patients. What they can realistically set their sights on is building the best possible relationship - or community - with their patients; within that relationship, healing will naturally occur without their having to ‘do’ anything. I believe that the power to heal, a spiritual power, comes from God. It is a gift. And I believe it is the intent of the Giver that it should be used in such a manner as to ultimately give it away." (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, 195-6).

We cannot wave our hands or speak words of power that can chase disease and force death to give up its victims. We lack that supernatural power of Jesus. But we can invite the diseased, lonely, weak and shamed into our lives, form relationships with them, and share with them the love God has lavished upon us. We may not know how to minister to the brokenness, assuage the guilt, and heal the hurt, and we don’t have to. We just have to build sincere relationships and God will provide any healing. We may not be able to heal like Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t agents in God’s healing ministry today. Some suffering with a migraine, broken heart or loneliness is looking for you today. Share with them your healing presence.

Warren Baldwin

Note: for a very insightful lecture on the problem of pain, listen to Joni Eareckson Tada on Theology of Suffering.