Saturday, August 08, 2020

Time and Chance (48)

Many years ago I had an older Scottish boss. Unstereotypically for a Scot with an accent so thick you could make peaks in it with a spatula, he had no problem with his staff reading a book, chatting, or idling away our shifts — but only under one condition: all the work in the shop must be finished and out the door first. If our salespeople failed to keep us busy, that was their problem. If we failed to deliver their work on time, it was ours.

So play by all means, but play after you work.

A Little Glass of Wittenberg Beer

Martin Luther once said, “While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer the gospel runs its course.” He could say it because he had first been to the pulpit and had preached the gospel. Having discharged the duties he believed God had given him, he was able to take his moment of ease in confidence that his God would do the rest. Luther’s little glass came after his labor.

There’s an old children’s rhyme that goes, “We must do the things we must before the things we may.” There is great truth in it.

People sometimes ask how I am able to write four or five lengthy posts a week while working a full-time schedule. Part of the answer is that I get up very early indeed, usually between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., and after spending time with the Lord, I get right on the keyboard and start hammering. Like everyone else, I enjoy a long, slow evening of food, drink and conversation when I can get it, but I enjoy it a whole lot more when the obligations on my to-do list are all checked off.

This is the essence of what the Preacher is telling us in the following verses.

Ecclesiastes 10:16-17 — Things We Must, Things We May
“Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!”
People take their cues from leadership. A hard-working boss inspires his staff to work just as hard. A hard-working father produces sons who know how to use time wisely, or at bare minimum know to fake it like Oscar winners when their father is watching. A church whose elders serve the congregation learns how to serve one another.

Not-so-Common Sense

The principle of work before play seems to me to be simple common sense. In fact, it is so screamingly self-evident as to normally make for a very short post. Yet, amazingly, some people find the idea of delayed gratification or long time-preferences quite objectionable, even racist, so we must take a regrettable moment to belabor the obvious.

In her book White Fragility, pasty-white American academic Robin DiAngelo alleges that having a work ethic is a manifestation of white supremacy:
“Messages of pre-eminent white value and Black insignificance are raining down on us 24/7, and there are no umbrellas. We live in ... a society in which white people are elevated as the ideal for humanity and everyone else is a deficient version, and Black people are cast as the most deficient.”
[The lower case ‘w’ in “white” and the upper case ‘B’ in “Black” are DiAngelo’s, not mine.]

DiAngelo goes on to explain the form this “casting as deficient” takes, quoting another writer who says that ideas of being on time, living by a mechanical clock, putting work before play, individualism, planning for the future, living by a budget, personal responsibility ... all of these “demean black people and condemn them to a life of inferiority”. They compel one race to live by the standards of another, then judge them as lacking because they do not subscribe to these white values.

One may be forgiven for wondering if Ms DiAngelo has had one sip too many of Luther’s Wittenberg beer.

Values That Work Across Time and Culture

In any case, the utter vacuity of DiAngelo’s patronizing thesis should be obvious. Hard work and setting long-term priorities are not uniquely “white” values. They are the hallmark of every orderly and functioning society in human history.

Indians are notoriously hard-working. The Chinese are punctual and efficient to the point of obsession. The Roman Empire prospered when its leaders put work before play; when it became decadent and self-indulgent, it fell apart. The “We must do the things we must” proverb is quoted here by a black high school graduate named Rosezetta Jackson in her 1955 yearbook, and probably originated in South Africa. These verses we are examining in Ecclesiastes about taking one’s leisure at the appropriate time were penned 3,000 years ago by a Hebrew king. These cultures are mostly Eastern; only the Romans might remotely be considered “white”.

If “white culture” has to some degree absorbed these historic and widespread human values, it certainly can claim no credit for originating or developing them. They have persisted and been much-copied precisely because they work across time and across all manner of cultures.

The Son of the Nobility

The Preacher can say, “Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility.” Here he is not merely lauding the questionable virtues of coming from a kingly line. The contrast to the “son of the nobility” is not a poor man but “a child”. Solomon is speaking of the value of maturity, priority-setting and wisdom. The true “son of the nobility” is well brought up, fully trained; a man who understands the needs of his people and works to serve them. The “child” in question is not necessarily a literal babe-in-arms, but rather the immature ruler, the man who sets his own desires and appetites above the needs of the people. Ironically, Solomon’s own son Rehoboam would later demonstrate his own immaturity and unfitness to rule Israel by putting himself first and inadvertently dividing his own kingdom in two.

Martin Luther knew his Wittenberg beer was for end of day, after God’s work had been done to the best of his ability. The mature Christian adopts the same priorities: first the kingdom, then God will add “all these things” [the needs of the body, including food and drink]. Our enjoyment of our own leisure and pleasure will be in proportion to how we manage them: responsibly and appropriately, one hopes.

Ecclesiastes 10:18 — End of the Empire
“Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks.”
This last proverb is not unrelated to the principle we have been considering. The eventual outcome of a lifetime (or a culture) of self-indulgence, procrastination and laziness is one giant mess. The industrious man with his priorities in order doesn’t worry about a leaky roof. He has replaced it long before it is ready to cave in. The lazy man can always get to it tomorrow, and somehow tomorrow never comes.

No, the proper time to feast is after one has set one’s affairs in order. It is no surprise to find God’s proclamation of the end of the Babylonian empire through the prophet Daniel coming at the height of Babylonian decadence, at a feast. Had Belshazzar been tending to the affairs of his kingdom rather than drinking wine out of the golden vessels of the temple of Jehovah, the ominous “Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin” might never have been required.

The Medes and Persians didn’t exactly come through the roof that night, but they may as well have.

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