March 2018 Pastoral Letter - Wisdom and the end of civilisation

MARCH 2018

Wisdom and the End of Civilisation

Honour the lord with your wealth
and the first fruits of all your produce;
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
And your vats will be bursting with wine.
(Proverbs Chapter 3 Verses 9-10)

It should never surprise us how often the complex and difficult problems of the world are addressed by the Word of God.  For example, much of what the Bible means by the ‘wicked’ and the ‘righteous’ extends beyond the moral realm to the social realm, and so relate to many of the problems our communities face.

“The righteous are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves. (Bruce Walker)

Timothy Keller summaries this:

“The righteous say ‘Much of what I have belongs to the people around me, because it all comes from God and He wants me to love my neighbour “  The wicked say, ‘I can do what I want with my things”.
This speaks to the most urgent issues of our day.

The January copy of the popular science magazine ‘New Scientist’ ran a lead article which was headed ‘The writing on the Wall; The worrying signs that civilisation has started to collapse’. I wonder if the author realised she was using a Biblical image - “the writing on the wall” being a reference to the reign of Belshazzar, king of Babylon.  One night, as recounted in Daniel Chapter 5, he is enjoying a wild party, and unaware that an army is on the way to ransack the city and kill him that very night.    In the midst of the orgy a mysterious hand appears and starts writing on the wall.  The message is effectively ‘Your days are numbered”.  The disintegration and division of his kingdom was imminent and his doom heralded by the ‘writing on the wall’.

The New Scientist article focuses on concerns that Western civilisation is starting to crumble.  Some of those who have studied the waxing and waning of civilisations have reached the conclusion that persistent appearance serve to be the ‘writing on the wall’  of approaching doom - resource depletion and extreme inequality.

There are obvious examples of the first of these - the depletion of non-renewable resources like fossil fuels.  However, what the article focuses on is the way that inequality has risen in Western societies.  Apparently, the world’s 1% possess half its wealth, and, since the financial crisis of 2008, the gap has grown relentlessly.  According to the article, growing inequality makes societies unstable and prone to unrest, division and disintegration (citing Brexit and tensions in NATO).

The article goes on to suggest various possible solutions, but is rather pessimistic about the readiness of people to plan co-operatively and for the long term (witness the torts, acrimonious Climate talks that have rumbled on for decades).

After reading this magazine, I was reminded of how these very issues are dealt with in the Bible.  God’s wisdom on these matters is readily available.  The above quote taken from the Book of Proverbs is a call to be generous in the face of inequality that traps people in poverty.  Wisdom shows itself in many ways, and generosity is one of those ways. The exercise of generosity is a righteous way of living. One of our difficulties is that we tend to allow ourselves to be seduced by the love of money and that love makes us hesitate to loosen our grip on our cash.  The easiest way to break the power which money holds over our hearts is simply to give it away.

A few doors from the Manse in Wigtown, where we lived for over 16 years, lived Mick and Margaret Render.  As missionaries, they had been expelled from China during the years after the communist revolution.  Mick then became a Methodist minister and they settled in Wigtown in their retirement.  Mick once said to me, in a throwaway remark, ‘Money is for giving away, as much of it as you can.’  His simple and generous lifestyle was testimony to the way he adhered to that principle.

Honour the lord with your wealth
and the first fruits of all your produce;
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
And your vats will be bursting with wine.

The first fruits are to be given to God and to the poor even before the extent of the harvest was known.
Have you heard the story of a farmer who told his minister that one of his cows had given birth to two calves, unexpectedly? He promised he would sell one and give the other one to the church.  A few weeks later he informed the minister: “I’m sorry to say, Reverend, but the Lord’s calf died.”  The point is that often, in our mindset, it is the Lord’s calf that dies.  Other priorities come first.

By contrast, the Lord Jesus, who was infinitely rich, did not simply give away the excess of all his wealth, but laid down his very life to save us.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you, by his poverty, might become rich” 2 Corinthians 8:9.

In a society where fears are being expressed about the end of civilisation, made imminent by growing inequality, we would do well to notice that there is a solution.  Wisdom is generous, and it is generosity that will heal the divisions and anarchy that can come in the wake of inequality.

One final point:  In a very important sense, the New Scientist article is entirely correct in its prophecy of doom.  The Kingdom of this world has no long term future.  Its values comprise a striving after one and success and status.  It is a party that will end as did Belshazzar’s.  It will be replaced by a Kingdom whose values are the inverse, the Kingdom of God.  For all our struggles and disappointments and even conflict in this world, there is the assurance that the Kingdom to which we belong as believers represents the future, and meanwhile we strive to live righteously to improve this world.

Your Minister,

Martin Thomson

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