The Wisdom of Slow

Apparently I have a thing for misunderstood creatures.

Whereas in popular culture “weasel” has become synonymous with dishonesty and is seen as almost without virtue, I actually like them. The combination of lithe grace and almost unparalleled fierceness appeals to me.

Similarly, the sloths are some of my favourite animals of all God’s creatures, despite their reputation.

A Three-Toed Sloth. Source: The Guardian

Sloths have a bad press. Not as completely evil as the weasel, but a byword for lazy, viewed even by some naturalists as primitive, ungainly, ugly and stupid. The Ice Age trilogy had as its most completely annoying character Sid the Sloth. Admittedly, Sid is supposed to be a ground sloth, but that actually makes it worse. Ground sloths are even cooler than their modern descendents.

What virtue can I possibly find in this creature that moves at just over one mile an hour when going flat out and doesn’t even have enamel on its teeth?

There are three species of sloth remaining in the world: the two-toed sloths of the genus Chololepus and the three-toed sloths of the genus Bradypus.

This is all that remains of one of the most successful animal groups ever to come out of South America. A group which included Megatherium, a ground sloth that weighed about the same as an African elephant, stood on its back legs as tall as a giraffe and had strong enough arms to roll over a VW Beetle. A group that included Thalassocnus, an animal that pushed the limits of bizarrity even for sloths, being a marine animal adapted to swim out to sea and graze on seaweed.

A lot of sloths’ poor reputation stems from the attitudes of the early European naturalists who first described them. Here was an animal that was so different to anything that was already known from Europe, Africa or Asia that it was difficult to know what to make of it. It looked lumpy, hung upside down all the time and moved at a ridiculously slow rate. Its teeth lacked enamel. It actually had algae that grew on its fur. Its metabolic rate was so slow that it rivalled that of a sleeping bear. It wasn’t even all that good to eat.

And European naturalists being European naturalists and in love with the pseudo-Darwinian idea that there were “superior” and “inferior” creatures (and “superior” and “inferior” races of people), they dismissed the sloth as “primitive”. After all, wasn’t it self-evident that the European races were inherently superior, and those of Northern Europe most superior of all? In like manner, the creatures of Europe and its environs were automatically assumed to be superior to anything else, and the more unlike anything European something was, the further down the evolutionary totem pole it belonged.

Personally, I question the assumptions that led to this.

Sloths are perfectly designed for their environment and lifestyle. Everything we tend to think is primitive or just plain dumb is actually another adaptation to its way of life. It’s just adapted very differently to anything European.

Sloths are browsers; they feed on leaves. This is the central defining truth of the sloth, and explains almost every aspect of their oddity.

Leaves, you see, are a particularly low-calorie food. Anyone on a diet will be able to vouch for the fact that 8oz’ worth of lettuce leaves contains dramatically fewer calories than an 8oz steak. And since calories are a measure of energy, what this amounts to is that leaf-eaters don’t get as much energy per ounce of food. Leaves are difficult for animals to break down, and most animals that graze or browse have huge guts that are effectively chains of vats full of the microorganisms that can break the stuff down.

Old-World, European-type grazers and browsers are adapted to the low-energy nature of their food by spending almost all of their waking hours engaged in eating. A field of cows do practically little else; deer are the same, except with tree leaves rather than grass. They maintain a high-energy lifestyle – running and jumping and so on – by continually replenishing that energy by eating.

Sloths have a completely dfferent approach to the realities of their diet. Rather than try to maintain a high-energy, highly-active lifestyle, the sloths slow down so as not to expend any more energy than they absolutely have to.

Their metabolism is slower than any other vertebrate on the planet. Their body temperature is several degrees cooler than most mammals’, because running the furnace of an ectothermic (“warm-blooded”) metabolism at the rate of most mammals takes an awful lot of energy. By comparison, sloths are practically cold-blooded.

They hang upside-down because with their hook-shaped claws, it takes far less energy and muscle than supporting oneself on one’s limbs.

They move at the fantastic speed of 1.2 mph at what for a sloth is a flat sprint because they don’t have much muscle. Muscle takes energy to make and maintain, and energy to operate, and sloths have one simple rule: minimise energy expenditure.

Their unenamelled dentine teeth are another adaptation for their leaf-eating lifestyle. Mammals only get a maximum of two sets of teeth in their lives. This is a consequence of the way mammalian teeth have different designs depending on where in the mouth they are, and the way they interlock with each other. Mammals have some of the most complex teeth of any creature. In addition, like most other vertebrates, the teeth of all other mammals are covered in enamel. Tooth enamel is the hardest substance produced by the body; far harder than bone. It forms a thin layer over the outer surface of the tooth; under this is the dentine; a substance very similar to the bone in the rest of the skeleton.

Forming all of these complicated teeth, shedding them and growing a new set takes, you’ve guessed it, energy. Energy a sloth doesn’t have. Enamel is difficult to grow, mostly because of its hardness, and leaves are particularly tough on vertebrate teeth. It’s this more than anything else that contributes to mammals’ two tooth set limit.

Most animals than eat plants don’t have fully-enamelled grinding teeth. An elephant’s teeth, for instance, are a complex set of enamel ridges with dentine in between. Beavers and other rodents have incisors that keep growing all their lives, but those teeth are only enamelled on the front side.

Sloths have taken the process a step further. Their teeth don’t have any enamel at all. In addition, they are designed so that their continually-growing dentine teeth self-sharpen as they bite and chew their food. If you look at it from the sloth’s point of view, the feature that more than any other gets dismissed as a “primitive” trait is actually one of their most advanced adaptations.

Perhaps surprisingly, sloths can swim, and do so pretty well. There are whole sections of the Amazon basin that have such intense seasonal floods that whole areas of forest get submerged, becoming the eerie “drowned forest”. In this season, sloths actually belie their name and exhibit a pretty respectable turn of speed through the water. At least, for an animal famous for being slow. The sloth in the water isn’t going to be winning any races against penguins or seals, but he can move much faster in water than hecan on land.

The sloths’ extinct cousins the ground sloths were even more amazing. Including over 27 species in 19 genera, they were one of the few types of animal to successfully colonise North America from South America. When the last ice age ended and they became extinct, they were poised to cross the Bering land bridge into Asia. Their low metabolic rate gave them an advantage over other similarly-sized creatures, because they needed less food. They were large and strong, and it’s thought that some of the larger varieties might have supplemented their plant diet with occasional scavenging of carcasses, or even hunting. Certain Glyptodon (extinct giant armadillo weighing about the same as a VW Beetle) skeletons have been found inexplicably belly-up, and the giant ground sloth is the only thing we know about with the strength and leverage to roll one.

So sloths are awesome.

But what lessons might we get from our new knowledge of the true nature of sloths?

They’ve been dismissed for years as an object lesson on not being lazy. Their very common name is taken from the Seven Deadly Sins’ version of laziness. But if we’ve established that most of what we thought we knew about sloths is either wrong or prejudiced, what moral lesson might we draw instead?

The most obvious and timely one is simply to slow down.

The frenetic pace of life is one of the things that draws more contemporary ire than anything else. People work flat-out all the time, particularly here in the States where hard work is considered perhaps the chief of virtues. Even when we take a day off, we’re rushing off to the beach or spending the day mowing the lawn and repairing the car and the house. Our free time is something many of us claim to treasure, even while we don’t actually engage in it when we have the opportunity. I know a man who has “retired” three or four times and then come back to work, not because of financial necessity but because he just couldn’t keep away.

We are a generation of instant communications, fast internet and high-speed data sharing. We want results instantly and get impatient or frustrated when we can’t get them. As evidence, look at your driving habits. If you’re anything like me, about the worst possible situation on the road is to run into a delay caused by an accident, a traffic light misbehaving, or simply some idiot being an idiot on the piece of road you want to use.

I have to remind myself that really, it’s ok. I’m a follower of Jesus, so I’m actually going to live forever. What’s the rush?

Patience is probably the least practiced and most sought-after virtue in the modern world. The ability to set aside worry and activity and just wait.

It’s an area where, metaphorically, the sloth excels. In fact, if we were to have named the sloth after its virtues rather than its vices, it would undoubtedly be called a Patience.

We might also learn other lessons, though. Wisdom, for example. As with the sloth’s self-sharpening teeth, it’s a wise and learned individual who can in all humility sharpen themselves. We are told in the Proverbs about one man sharpening another, but to self-sharpen? It takes both the wisdom and learning to be able to use what one has to get sharper, and the humility to know exactly when you are self-sharpening and when you are fooling yourself.

Or perhaps just an appreciation for the despised. If a sloth were judged by its ability to run, it would be believed worthless. Sometimes we believe this of ourselves, or of other people. Maybe we’re just like the sloth: so uniquely different that people have a hard time understanding us.

Maybe the ability to swim in the flood of God’s presence. In the water, the sloth doesn’t need to use its weak muscles to support itself, only to gain forward motion. Or as the Scripture puts it: “He chose the weak things of this world to shame the strong”.

This peculiar wisdom of the slow comes naturally to the sloth, but is anything but natural to us in our busy, fast-paced lives.

Perhaps we could do with rehabilitating the sloth’s reputation and learning from the master of slow wisdom.

Retro Week: When True Simplicity Is Gained

As I mentioned last time, next Monday makes six months of blogging for me.

Both in honour of this momentous occasion (tongue firmly in cheek) and because I’m kind of thin on the ground as far as inspiration goes at the moment, I’m declaring this week to be “Retro Week”.

I will be reposting some of my personal selections from the archives, beginning with this one:


‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed;
And to turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

I recently heard the words of this early American hymn for the first time. The tune was made famous by being included in Aaron Copeland’s Classical work Appalachian Spring; not knowing what it actually came from, the music always sounded like Lord of the Dance to me.

Hearing the words for the first time fairly recently, and having a background in another country and another century, it took a little while to really understand and appreciate the message of the hymn. It doesn’t help that “simple” has come to mean “lacking understanding”, “ignorant” or “witless”. It’s a gift to be lacking understanding… It’s a gift to be ignorant… What?

To paraphrase Winnie the Pooh: This is the Wrong Sort of Simple.

Winnie the Pooh is a pretty good metaphor for what I mean, actually.  I always want to make things so complicated. Like Owl, I admire learning and intellect, particularly, being painfully honest, my own.  I use huge words where small ones would do. I say “The flood waters have reached an unprecedented height” when I mean “there’s a lot of water about”.  I’m more than a little bit pompous.  I have, to use A. A. Milne’s term, Brain.

There is, of course, in the world of Pooh Bear, a drawback to having Brain. “Rabbit’s clever,” Pooh says to Piglet at one point.  Piglet agrees. “Yes, Rabbit’s clever”.  “And he has Brain.”  Again, Piglet agrees.  Rabbit indeed has Brain.  “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

Education and cleverness are wonderful things (rather like Tiggers), but there can come a point when all of our cleverness and learning just makes things more complicated than they need to be.

I recognise this trait in myself. I’ve been pedantic about knowledge since I first started to get any, and I can, like Owl, easily slip into a rather superior sort of mould.

Part of me wants complication, particularly in ideas. “There’s more going on here than meets the eye” is becoming a common statement from me about various Scripture passages. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes we could all do with digging a little deeper. But I recognise a tendency in myself to over-complicate. To get so caught up in sifting through the complexities that I miss the simple truth that’s staring me in the face. Like Martha, I’m worried and concerned about many things. Though in my case, they are less the tasks and chores of the everyday than the spiritual knowledge and in-depth insight of my own particular brand of complication.

Sometimes, it truly is a gift to be simple. To be free of all the mental clutter that scatters our thoughts into a million different places, when all we really need is to focus in on the One thing that is needed. In my case, the Marys that have chosen what is better are those on the ground, who are right there with the Lord in the place of service.

As an educated man and self-confessed intellectual, it’s humbling to admit. I’ve spent my entire life filling my mind. I’m proud of my intellectual powers. I’ll accept almost any insult short of “you are stupid”. I like the “Wow, I never thought of that” comments I sometimes get.  I like being able to see and grasp things others sometimes can’t.

Ah, pride. First of the seven sins called “deadly” by the Catholics because they beget other sins. The arrogance of standing before God and thinking we have something of our own and in ourselves. Of taking a superior position with respect to our brothers. Of thinking that We Deserve Something.

To come down from our high intellectual tower to where we ought to be, in the press of the world, serving as our Lord before us… Truly, a gift.

Because it’s there that we find Jesus. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to Me.” He’s in those we minister to, and He’s right there already ministering to them. He does what He sees the Father doing, and invites us to come and do it with Him.

And when we find Jesus, and join Him in His work, serving the least of these, we find ourselves.

Ourselves without the complicated knots we tie ourselves in, the arrogance and hiding and shame. Ourselves as we were meant to be. And we find joy, because what the Lord has for us truly is “the place just right”. The valley of love, where we find ourselves loving Him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself. Where we turn and turn with Him in a whirl of delight. Not that it isn’t hard, nor that it won’t be painful. But it’s far more real and more satisfying to the soul than the cold, barren complexities we hide ourselves away in.

It’s paradoxical. We find true wisdom in simplicity, in laying aside our pride in our own cleverness. We find honour in being numbered along with our Lord, in the heat and dust of the place of service. We grasp a higher truth by abandoning the quest for More Knowledge and using what we have for others.

And as the song says, when we find this true simplicity, not the simplicity of the fool but the simplicity of the truly wise, then “to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed”. Because being the top dog, or the intellectual genius, or whatever, won’t matter any more. We will be able to bow and bend to one another in grace, not concerned for position or status or our pride in our own cleverness, no shame, no reason to hide,no reason to refuse to bend. Able to say those fateful words: I don’t know. Or “You were right; I was wrong.”

Delighted to turn from our self-absorbtion toward those we should be serving. From our fear of being exposed as frauds to the freedom of humility. To the delight of service. With nary so much as a “look at me; I’m so humble”. Made like our Lord, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, scorning its shame. Able to take positions that look shameful or scornful, because our joy is found there in the Person of Christ.

‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.

Same Name, Different Bird (part 2)

In my last post, I discussed the differences between the European and American robins, with a definite editorial slant towards the European robin. My personal preferences being arranged the way they are, I have quite a liking for the feisty little European robin, which manifests itself (now that I live in America where there aren’t any European robins) as a mild discomfort with its American counterpart. It’s not really fair to the American robin. Why should I dislike it for not being a European robin?

American robin

Last time, I made the point that we often react the same way when confronted with much more important differences. I’m a follower of Jesus, but I’m acutely aware that there are many who claim the name of Christ, even among people I know personally, whose faith looks very little like my own. People who honestly believe that the Bible mandates a positional authority for men over women. People whose political leanings colour their faith in a different shade to my own. People who seem to have fundamentally different assumptions about what a good Christian is like.

We both claim to be believers and followers of Christ, but just talking with both of us on any serious subject can reveal vast differences of outlook. We have the same name as “Christians”, but we’re vastly different birds. Just like the transatlantic robins.

What can we learn, then, from the fact that the American robin is not a European robin? Can I learn to appreciate it for what it is instead of judging it for what it isn’t? Let’s find out, shall we?

What is the American robin, then, if it isn’t the feisty little destroyer of garden pests I grew up with?

It looks almost exactly the same size and shape as a European song thrush, and sure enough, its scientific name Turdus migratorius reveals it to be a member of the same thrush genus. Thrushes are good birds. The song thrush is known for its melodious voice, and its relative the blackbird is a clever mimic like the mockingbird, and I’ve heard several that liked to incorporate mobile phone ringtones and car alarm sounds into their songs.

Thrushes are also clever, then. The song thrush is intelligent enough to use a flat stone as an “anvil” to crack open snail shells.

Looking up the American robin, the first thing I note is that it’s known as a songbird. It is, in fact, apparently one of the first birds to greet the dawn with its melodious voice. Its song is more complex than the trills of the European robin, and this is what we should expect from a member of the thrush family.

American robins roost in large flocks and are vigilant for predators. The fact that they congregate points to a degree of cooperation and watching one another’s back, though this is a little anthropomorphic. Flocking behaviour and true social behaviour are not quite the same thing.

Like their more familiar European thrush counterparts, they’re clever birds. Clever enough that cowbird (a brood parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests like the cuckoo) eggs generally get spotted and rejected. This is no mean feat; European robins are notorious for being deceived by cuckoos, despite the vast differences in size and appearance between the robins’ own chicks and the intruding cuckoo.

It’s also intelligent enough to be able to complete a fairly long migration south from Canada and the northern US to Florida, the Gulf Coast, Mexico and the Pacific coast.

And I have my key to understanding and appreciating this not-robin robin.

In Levi‘s “lessons from the birds” terms, the lesson from the American robin is… Wisdom.

It’s up with the first light of day, heralding the dawn. This puts me in mind of the sort of prophetic insight that understands the times and knows what should be done.

It is vigilant for predators and watches out for the flock. It can identify an egg that is an impostor and deal with the situation appropriately by rejecting it. How I wish that more believers in Christ would have this sort of discernment – to be able to recognise when something that looks real is not, but is a deception or counterfeit! And the American robin combines this with a collective consciousness that looks out not only for its own self, but for the flock as a whole! Just the way more mature believers are supposed to watch out for the flock they are a part of.

Its migratory behaviour means it needs to know the way. Migratory birds don’t need maps or compasses; they just do it. Again, this looks like the way Scriptural wisdom functions. The Holy Spirit within us, teaching us all things. Guidance when we need it, the promptings of faith, the power to understand the Scriptures…

It has a melodious voice and a song frequently described as “cheerful”. This, too, is wisdom; the wisdom to delight oneself in the Lord and be grateful for His many blessings.

And how does this wisdom come?

We study the Scriptures, either getting up early like the robin or staying up late like the owl. We walk with the wise. We ask the Lord, who gives without stinting.

Wisdom has many facets, and sometimes it can appear in unfamiliar guises. Jesus, God’s Holy Wisdom Himself, did not look or behave at all like people expected – hanging out with prostitutes and traitorous tax-gatherers, calling the most visibly righteous people around “blind guides” and “hypocrites”, dying on a Roman cross…

And to think I dismissed the American robin because it wasn’t the bird I was familiar with!

How To Sharpen A Machete

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17)


My wife bought me a machete for my birthday recently. Occasionally I need one for my job, and it’s a good thing to have when you need it.

If you know anything about them, you know that they come unsharpened and the first thing you have to do is spend some time putting a cutting edge on the blade.

Consequently, I’ve been thinking about this verse in Proverbs. Ironically, this is my second post in less than a month from what I consider to be my least-understood book of the Bible.

We often understand this sharpening as an almost accidental thing, something that just happens as we rub up against one another’s rough edges. Rather like pebbles on a beach get smoothed and weathered by the pounding of the waves and by crashing into each other, our rough spots are smoothed by contact with someone else’s rough spots. The verse is, we are given to understand, about tolerating one another’s annoying habits and character weaknesses so that the Holy Spirit can work patience and self-control in us.

But sitting here sharpening this machete, I’m struck by the fact that this may not be what the verse is saying.

Pebbles get smoothed by crashing into one another on the beach. They don’t get sharpened. Indeed, a sharp piece of glass will get smoothed into a rounded transparent pebble, not sharpened still further.

What I’m saying is that there’s an intentionality about the act of sharpening. You have to run a metal file or whetstone over the blade time after time in the same smooth stroke in the same direction, otherwise you’ll damage the edge you’re forming. By varying the angle between the file and the blade, you can create either a broad cutting edge that cuts very finely but is easily blunted (the way I prefer it), or a narrower one which will not slice as easily but which will be more robust (more like the way my father-in-law has his machete).

This intentionality seems at odds with our usual application of this verse. Perhaps it’s more about the act of teaching and training than about rubbing off our rough character spots. There’s an intentionality about it; we are trying to put an edge on those we are training. We have to be careful to develop the appropriate edge, not just scrape on one another any old how. People can get damaged if we are careless in how we train them.

It’s true that we all have rough edges that need to be smoothed down, and that close contact with other people is a great way of revealing areas for character development. But my machete says that this may not be the whole story of this verse.

Sharpening a machete takes smooth strokes, and mostly a lot of repetition. In our Western culture of instant success we get impatient with anything that can’t give us results right now. We have weight loss programmes promising that you can “watch the pounds fall off in just days”, instant communications, fantastic (as in: almost certainly fantasy) wealth generation schemes promising instant rewards if you’ll come to this free seminar. But being taught isn’t like that. We spend most of our waking hours between the ages of 5 and 18 getting formally educated. That’s 12 years just to learn the information and basic skills we consider essential to our civilisation. If you want a specialist career, there’s usually more schooling after that. And this is after the first few years of our lives in which we learn to move, control our own bodies, walk and talk.

12+ years of formal education just to learn the information and skills we consider necessary. We shouldn’t be surprised at spiritual teaching and training needing to take a while.

If you go off to rid a tree of its dead wood with a half-sharpened machete, you will quickly become frustrated. Because you haven’t spent enough time putting an edge on your tool yet, it will not cut well and you will find the job much harder than you ought. Yet sometimes we encourage people to do just that with serving God. You don’t need an education; you can serve God just as you are in what He is calling you into. This is true, but if you know your calling is a long-term, lifetime thing, why make the task more difficult than it needs to be by failing to get properly honed? David spent years being pursued by Saul and living in caves between the time he was anointed by Samuel and the time he was crowned king. There are times for hearing the voice of God and obeying without delay: if Joseph had waited around after the angel said to flee to Egypt, Jesus might have been killed by Herod. But there are equally times when putting in the time to hone your blade is a proper investment of time. You are going to be spending a lot of energy using these skills. It behooves you to develop them by spending time around other people who can train you, not just going ahead with some blithe confidence that your blade will somehow self-sharpen as you begin to use it.

Sometimes we’re the blade being sharpened, and sometimes we’re the flat file. There’s a difference in these two roles, just like you can’t sharpen things with a machete or lop dead wood from a tree with a file. Maybe when we approach this verse we should be asking ourselves whether we have people in our lives that are a machete to our flat file, that we are being intentional about teaching and training. Maybe we ought to be asking whether we are the machete to someone else’s flat file: do we have someone in our lives who is intentionally teaching and training us in righteousness?

Iron sharpens iron, but it doesn’t do so by accident.

The Beginning of Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  (Proverbs 1:7)

I have to confess that I really struggle with the book of Proverbs. It’s set up exactly antithetically to the way my mind wants to work. Oh, the first few chapters aren’t bad – all that bit with Wisdom personified sending out her invitation to become wise. But once it gets into the actual proverbs part after the end of chapter 9, my mind sort of glazes over and I lose the plot.

I’m fairly good at reading a verse in context and teasing out recalcitrant layers of meaning. I can get into the flow of an argument and analyse it, or bring out the lessons from a narrative story. But Proverbs just sit there. They don’t have a context to be read in – the previous verse may be talking about laziness while the following verse is addressing quarrelling. There’s very little that needs a lot of interpretation or analysis of that sort; it’s all application. So with nothing to do, my interpretive/analytical mind gets bored and wanders off. I have a harder time reading and really understanding the book of Proverbs than I do with any other book of the Bible.

People have advised me to read it in the Message. I’ve read it in the Message and it’s worse. People have tried to tell me to read it in this version or that version. I haven’t yet found a version in which I feel I actually understand it. My mind is set up to look for the wrong things. As a self-confessed lover of wisdom, it’s embarrassing that I find the chief book of the Wisdom literature so hard to read.

There are some gems, though. Like this one. It talks about “the fear of the Lord”, which is one of those things that just doesn’t translate well into modern English. It mentions “fools”, which again is a word with more to it than we might expect from its English translation. And it talks about knowledge, wisdom and instruction.

And now my mind is warmed up and engaged on the topic. There’s something to analyse and interpret.

Firstly, the fear of the Lord. It’s not something we hear a lot about any more. We don’t want to be afraid of God, and why should we be, anyway? He’s good and loving, isn’t He?

Yes, He’s good. He’s gracious and compassionate. But He’s also holy and sovereign. He’s the One who made the great white shark and the Kodiak bear and the black mamba and called them good.

To get a good handle on it we need to rewind our mental frame of reference back to the age when kings ruled as well as reigning. In that day, even good kings were addressed as “Dread Sovereign”, and the idea that you could offer them even the vaguest of impertinences was definitely anathema. Only an idiot would address Queen Elizabeth I simply as “Lizzie”, and she was well-beloved by her people. Go back even further and the idea becomes even more absurd and dangerous. You’d have to have a death wish to address Richard the Lionheart as “Ricky Boy”.

Americans show a similar level of respect to their Flag, at least on an official level. You can’t cut it, burn it or deface it. You can’t let it fly in the rain. You can’t let it touch the ground. You’re not even really supposed to display it on everyday objects – it treats the Flag like something common and it’s disrespectful.

And yet we’re awfully cavalier sometimes with how we approach the Almighty. We call Him Lord and Master and then make decisions for ourselves based on what we want. We say He’s the most important thing in our lives, then ignore Him for days at a time or treat obedience and holiness as optional extras. We box Him in with our extra-Biblical assumptions of what He can and cannot do. We sing about Him as Lover and Friend – and He is – but we forget that He’s also “a consuming fire” (Heb 13:28-29) and One into whose hands it is “a terrible thing” to fall (Heb 10:31).

The Lord is God of angel armies and Sovereign of heaven as well as gracious and compassionate. He’s not Someone you can take liberties with. He doesn’t exist purely to encourage us, bless us, forgive us and give us gifts. He doesn’t exist for us at all, but for Himself. He is the Creator, we are the Creature. As the book of Ecclesiastes says, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecc 5:2) I’m probably going to offend someone by saying this, but in my opinion Matt Redman totally missed the point by turning this verse, of all verses, into an “intimate” sappy love song for Jesus. It isn’t about that; it’s about the transcendent power and greatness of God. It so often seems to me as though much of our worship is all about us. Our feelings about Him. What He’s done for us lately. Our love for Him rather than His love for us. We’re centre stage; Jesus is almost a passive object receiving our affections and devotion. Or we diminish Him by all of those “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” songs, bringing Him down to our level as if He’s a human lover.

There’s a place for intimacy with God. Jesus is described as Bridegroom and Lover and Friend. But there’s also a place for awe. For distance, Creatureliness, awareness of just how high His Kingship extends. He in heaven and we are on earth. We would do well to remember this. He’s not our boyfriend, because a sane boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is a relationship of equals, and He is far greater than we.

CS Lewis had it exactly right when he described Aslan as “not safe, but good”. When the children meet Him, he says that “If the children had had any illusions that something could not be both good and terrible, they were cured of it now.” Yes, He’s the Aslan who romps and laughs with Lucy and Susan, but He’s also a great big Lion that shakes Trumpkin like a terrier with a rat, chases Shasta, scars Aravis’ back, and humbles Caspian with “those eyes!”. He’s the King. He’s good, but He’s certainly not someone we can keep in our pockets and take out when we need some encouraging.

The fear of the Lord. Awe of God the Creator in heaven, because we are Creatures on earth.  He made us; we should not act as though we believe we made Him.

This is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom, we are told: the place of Creaturely awe and reverence. The fear of the Lord doesn’t treat His word as something to bend to our own preferences, nor does it treat the holy obedience of faith as an option. He was Sovereign before He was Saviour, and our Gospel presentations ought to reflect this: not “come to Jesus and get your needs met”, as if He’s some sort of servant to our whims, but “Jesus is Lord, what are you going to do about it?” Likewise, the call to holy living is an integral part of following Christ, not an optional extra. He’s God; we’re not. If we call Him “Lord”, we’d better do what He says, because that’s what “Lord” means. Or do we think that He’s a tame Lion, under our power?

“Fools despise wisdom and instruction”, the verse goes on to say.

The word “fool” in the Bible, particularly in the Wisdom literature, has slightly different connotations than our English word does. Yes, it means someone who lacks wisdom and understanding, but its primary meaning is “one who lacks moral sense”. Someone who is amoral, who doesn’t know or doesn’t believe there’s a difference between right and wrong.

Such a one makes it all about themselves. With no higher standard than “what is good for me”, there’s no acknowledgement of God as Lord, much less awe of Him. If I like it and it does me good, it’s good, and if I don’t, then it isn’t. “Right for me” becomes the deciding factor, and standards are relativised. I’m the arbiter of what’s true and right and good.

Even as supposed followers of Christ, we live like this an awful lot. Our ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong may be different from the world’s, but sometimes they’re still our ideas rather than God’s. Or we acknowledge God as God and Lord with our lips, but then turn around and live life based on our own judgement and thinking, or what our culture says, or what we want to be true. We live like we’re in charge.

But Wisdom is moral. It begins with an understanding of our own Creatureliness and God’s Creatorhood, with an acknowledgement that He is God and we aren’t. Thus, He has the sole right to determine what “right” and “wrong” are. Our standards are right only insofar as the conform to His, not the other way around. Behaving as though we are the arbiters of good and evil is foolishness, pure and simple.

It’s difficult to teach someone like that. If they despise the very basis of Biblical wisdom by insisting that they can make their own standards or living as if there is no higher authority, then all your wise words aren’t going to count for much. You have to step back a few steps and come at this from first principles, rather than jumping in with “that’s wrong!” when they reject your basis for coming to that conclusion.

The fear of the Lord, that’s where it begins. If we over-emphasise the immanence of God without His transcendence, we’re left with a shrunken idol of a Safe Jesus, a Meeting-My-Needs Personal Servant Jesus, a Jesus As My Boyfriend. Someone whose commands we can feel free to ignore or sidestep.

“Safe? Whoever heard of a safe Lion? Of course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

We’d do well to act like it.

When True Simplicity Is Gained

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
 
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed;
And to turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

I recently heard the words of this early American hymn for the first time. The tune was made famous by being included in Aaron Copeland’s Classical work Appalachian Spring; not knowing what it actually came from, the music always sounded like Lord of the Dance to me.

Hearing the words for the first time fairly recently, and having a background in another country and another century, it took a little while to really understand and appreciate the message of the hymn. It doesn’t help that “simple” has come to mean “lacking understanding”, “ignorant” or “witless”. It’s a gift to be lacking understanding… It’s a gift to be ignorant… What?

To paraphrase Winnie the Pooh: This is the Wrong Sort of Simple.

Winnie the Pooh is a pretty good metaphor for what I mean, actually.  I always want to make things so complicated. Like Owl, I admire learning and intellect, particularly, being painfully honest, my own.  I use huge words where small ones would do. I say “The flood waters have reached an unprecedented height” when I mean “there’s a lot of water about”.  I’m more than a little bit pompous.  I have, to use A. A. Milne’s term, Brain.

There is, of course, in the world of Pooh Bear, a drawback to having Brain. “Rabbit’s clever,” Pooh says to Piglet at one point.  Piglet agrees. “Yes, Rabbit’s clever”.  “And he has Brain.”  Again, Piglet agrees.  Rabbit indeed has Brain.  “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

Education and cleverness are wonderful things (rather like Tiggers), but there can come a point when all of our cleverness and learning just makes things more complicated than they need to be.

I recognise this trait in myself. I’ve been pedantic about knowledge since I first started to get any, and I can, like Owl, easily slip into a rather superior sort of mould.

Part of me wants complication, particularly in ideas. “There’s more going on here than meets the eye” is becoming a common statement from me about various Scripture passages. Sometimes it’s true. Sometimes we could all do with digging a little deeper. But I recognise a tendency in myself to over-complicate. To get so caught up in sifting through the complexities that I miss the simple truth that’s staring me in the face. Like Martha, I’m worried and concerned about many things. Though in my case, they are less the tasks and chores of the everyday than the spiritual knowledge and in-depth insight of my own particular brand of complication.

Sometimes, it truly is a gift to be simple. To be free of all the mental clutter that scatters our thoughts into a million different places, when all we really need is to focus in on the One thing that is needed. In my case, the Marys that have chosen what is better are those on the ground, who are right there with the Lord in the place of service.

As an educated man and self-confessed intellectual, it’s humbling to admit. I’ve spent my entire life filling my mind. I’m proud of my intellectual powers. I’ll accept almost any insult short of “you are stupid”. I like the “Wow, I never thought of that” comments I sometimes get.  I like being able to see and grasp things others sometimes can’t.

Ah, pride. First of the seven sins called “deadly” by the Catholics because they beget other sins. The arrogance of standing before God and thinking we have something of our own and in ourselves. Of taking a superior position with respect to our brothers. Of thinking that We Deserve Something.

To come down from our high intellectual tower to where we ought to be, in the press of the world, serving as our Lord before us… Truly, a gift.

Because it’s there that we find Jesus. “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to Me.” He’s in those we minister to, and He’s right there already ministering to them. He does what He sees the Father doing, and invites us to come and do it with Him.

And when we find Jesus, and join Him in His work, serving the least of these, we find ourselves.

Ourselves without the complicated knots we tie ourselves in, the arrogance and hiding and shame. Ourselves as we were meant to be. And we find joy, because what the Lord has for us truly is “the place just right”. The valley of love, where we find ourselves loving Him with all our heart and our neighbour as ourself. Where we turn and turn with Him in a whirl of delight. Not that it isn’t hard, nor that it won’t be painful. But it’s far more real and more satisfying to the soul than the cold, barren complexities we hide ourselves away in.

It’s paradoxical. We find true wisdom in simplicity, in laying aside our pride in our own cleverness. We find honour in being numbered along with our Lord, in the heat and dust of the place of service. We grasp a higher truth by abandoning the quest for More Knowledge and using what we have for others.

And as the song says, when we find this true simplicity, not the simplicity of the fool but the simplicity of the truly wise, then “to bow and to bend we will not be ashamed”. Because being the top dog, or the intellectual genius, or whatever, won’t matter any more. We will be able to bow and bend to one another in grace, not concerned for position or status or our pride in our own cleverness, no shame, no reason to hide,no reason to refuse to bend. Able to say those fateful words: I don’t know. Or “You were right; I was wrong.”

Delighted to turn from our self-absorbtion toward those we should be serving. From our fear of being exposed as frauds to the freedom of humility. To the delight of service. With nary so much as a “look at me; I’m so humble”. Made like our Lord, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, scorning its shame. Able to take positions that look shameful or scornful, because our joy is found there in the Person of Christ.

‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.