Posts Tagged ‘wisdom’

God Chose What is Foolish

“God Chose What is Foolish”

1 Corinthians 1: 18-31

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 30th, 2011 – Faith United Presbyterian Church

Sometimes I just feel downright foolish.  When you get to know me you will discover that I am not particularly graceful…I trip and fall, I run into things, I run my children into things when I am carrying them (it’s okay, they are very resilient).  Just last week I slipped and fell on the icy steps outside of the Weeks House and I shouted out a very un-chaplain-like word, only to look up and see the men’s track team running by. I’m also very enthusiastic…sometimes overly so…which means I often catch myself laughing much too loudly or swaying to the music in worship or even letting out a little “Woo Hoo!!” after a great choral anthem.  (I know…I’m much too energetic to be truly Presbyterian.) My husband, Dan, directed the choir at our church in North Carolina.  After worship he would often ask me, “Was that you doing that, ‘Woo Hoo’?”  And I’d have to fess up that it was me.  Then he’d say… “Don’t do that.  Just don’t do that.”  So, you see, not only do I often embarrass myself…I embarrass my husband…and God knows I’m going to embarrass my children when they get old enough to know better….which I imagine won’t be long since Isaac is 3 going on 13.

I consider myself to be a pretty self-aware person, though.  So I am aware of my foolishness.  But I am not really bothered by it enough to try to hide it because, frankly speaking, I assume you all are pretty foolish too.  In fact I think all of us could confess that we are pretty foolish at times.  And not just in little embarrassing ways….we are all pretty foolish in big, sinful ways as well.

We are foolish in the way we think we have life all under control.

We are foolish not to recognize our limits, foolish in trying to do and be too much.

We are foolish in the way we use and abuse our environment.

We are foolish in not recognizing the privileges and power we hold over our minority neighbors.

We are foolish in waving our flag as if the world was a big sports arena and we can only cheer for our team.

We are foolish in our tribalism, our individualism, our elitism…

We are foolish, foolish people and we know it.

But that, of course, is why we are here.  We foolish people gather here in this place, in this house of God, because we know we are foolish and because we want to be transformed.  We want to do better and be better and we know that we cannot do better and be better alone.  We need God.  We need the community of faith.  We need, as Paul puts it, something wiser than human wisdom and something stronger than human strength.  We need wisdom from God, Christ Jesus, who became for us righteousness, sanctification, redemption.

In this section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he was addressing divisions in the congregation.  The way I would summarize at least one of these divisions is by saying that there were those who were foolish and knew they were foolish and those who were foolish and didn’t know they were foolish.  Each group was seeking wisdom, but they were each seeking a different kind of wisdom.  Those who were foolish and knew they were foolish were seeking the wisdom of God.  They were seeking the wisdom of God and they knew that they could not obtain this wisdom on their own…this wisdom must be given, as a gift, by a God who decides to give it.

Those who were foolish and didn’t know they were foolish sought a different kind of wisdom.  They sought, as Paul puts it, “human wisdom,” or the “wisdom of the world.”  They sought wisdom that was limited, but they didn’t recognize its limits.  They sought knowledge of God, but they thought they could get that knowledge of God all by themselves, that they could figure God out, that they could know God by their own efforts and their own brainpower.  And they thought that this wisdom, this knowledge of God, would make them powerful, would make them better, would make them transcend their foolish nature all on their own.

These first century Corinthians sort of remind me of today’s Scientologists.  They can actualize their own bright future…they can do anything…if only they harness their own human potential.  I heard Will Smith (a famous Hollywood Scientologist) say once in an interview that he could be the President of the United States…if he wanted to be…but he doesn’t want to be, therefore he isn’t.  You see according to the Scientologist mindset, Will Smith, John Travolta, Tom Cruise got to where they are today because they were able to master their own human wisdom, tap into their own “divine” potential, and rise above the rest of us fools because they could transcend their human limits…it had nothing to do with luck, fate, or the fact that they just happen to look really great on camera.

So Paul, here, is addressing this division in the church–the division between those who are foolish and know they are foolish and those who are foolish and don’t know they are foolish–and he uses the symbol of the cross as the foundation of his message.  The cross of Christ was a symbol of “foolishness” and of “weakness” to those who sought their own wisdom.  The cross of Christ was foolish because it involved giving up the claim to “be someone,”[1] giving up on all your human potential, giving up your power and your control.  Jesus was expected to be the great King, the powerful Messiah who would usher in the Kingdom of God, the one who would conquer the Roman oppressors and all other forces of evil.  When he died on the cross all these hopes were dashed because on the cross their Great King, their Jesus, was vulnerable, and weak, and utterly powerless.  Only a fool could still believe Jesus was the Messiah after that.  Obviously, the Romans and the forces of evil had won. The cross of Christ, then, made no sense to the foolish who did not know they were foolish.

But for Paul, the cross represented God’s surprising power to transform human existence; God’s surprising power to transform weakness into strength, foolishness into wisdom, darkness into light, despair, and depression, and depravity, into hope and life and light.  The cross of Christ, for Paul, was not the shameful end of a misguided prophet, but the supreme symbol of the extent of God’s love—that he would lay down his life for his friends—that he would become vulnerable for the ones he loves—that God would become the God-forsaken for us.[2] God chose this weak, vulnerable, forsaken, (and some would say) foolish path for us.  God chose the way of the cross to reveal God’s great love for us and God’s great power to transform that which is foolish.

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

We have no reason to boast because we are foolish, foolish people.  But we do have reason to celebrate because God chose what is foolish.  God chose you.  God chose me.  God chose all of us…all of us foolish people.  And that, my friends, is Good News.  That is the Good News of the Gospel because it means that, by the power of God, we can be transformed.  By the power of God we can be better and do better.  By the power of God we can transcend our foolish nature.

Henri Nouwen has long been one of my favorite spiritual authors.  Nouwen, a Catholic priest, is hailed as one of the most beloved and important spiritual writers of the twentieth century.  His books such as Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and The Return of the Prodigal Son, have become cherished classics.  While he was alive, Nouwen was an extraordinarily prolific writer and a popular preacher and teacher.  He attracted huge audiences whenever he spoke because he touched people with his sincerity and his special connection to God.  People all around the world loved this holy man.

I have admired Nouwen and his work for many years.  I frequently refer to his books on my shelf for spiritual insight and direction.  So when I came across a biography about him, written by BBC producer Michael Ford, I bought it ready to learn more about this man I so admired.  What I read in that biography, though, shocked me.  I assumed that Henri Nouwen, this spiritual master, this prolific writer, this sought-after preacher and speaker, would be a man of confidence, a man at peace with himself and his world, a man who was happy.  Instead, through numerous interviews with the friends and family members who knew Nouwen best, I discovered a man who was tormented by insecurity, anxiety, loneliness and fear.  In the biography stories were shared about Nouwen calling his friends in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety.  Someone had walked out during his lecture that evening and he was afraid he had offended them.  Or no one had bothered to invite him out to dinner after a speaking engagement so he assumed they weren’t pleased with him.  In the middle of the night he would call on his friends and plead with them to come over and be with him so he could be reassured that he was loved, that he was okay, that he wasn’t a complete failure.[3] I was shocked to read all of this.  I was shocked to learn that Henri Nouwen, this great spiritual man whom I admired so much, was human; he was a fool just like the rest of us.  This new knowledge of Nouwen didn’t make me admire him less, though.  Instead, as someone who has struggled to overcome shyness and anxiety myself, knowing this about Nouwen inspired me even more.

Henri Nouwen was a fool who knew he was a fool.  But he was also a fool who knew he was chosen.   And it was this knowledge, the knowledge that he was chosen by God, that helped him transcend his foolish nature, overcome his fears and his anxieties, put his God-given gifts to great use and be transformed…by the power of God.

In his book Life of the Beloved, Nouwen writes, “You must hold on to the truth that you are the chosen.  That truth is the bedrock on which you can build a life… [4]When we keep claiming the light [that this truth sheds], we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant.”[5]

God chose what is foolish.  God chose you.  God chose me.  God chose all of us…all of us foolish people.  And that is Good News.  That is Good News because it means that we can be transformed by the power of God.

Now to this God who loves us and chooses us, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] William A. Beardslee, First Corinthians:  A Commentary for Today, (Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 1994), pg. 27.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann

[3] Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen, (Random House, New York, NY, 1999)

[4] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, (Crossroads, New York, NY, 1999), pg.47.

[5] Ibid, pg. 52.

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Don’t be a Fool!

It’s been a busy few weeks here.  So I am looking forward to two weeks of vacation to regroup and renew myself. I will be back in the pulpit on Sunday, July 18th.  What follows is the final sermon in my summer sermon series on Proverbs from this 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

“Don’t Be a Fool”

Proverbs 1:7, 15: 32-33

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 27th, 2010

Proverbs is not for those with fragile egos, it is not for those who get their feelings easily hurt because Proverbs is quick to call you a fool.

One of the principal characters in the book of Proverbs is the fool.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. According to Proverbs, the fool is someone who refuses correction or reproof.[1] Foolish people cannot seriously entertain the possibility that they might be in the wrong.  They are right and don’t you dare suggest otherwise!  And seeing as they are right, they have no need of criticism, constructive or otherwise, so they avoid it or shrug it off as inconsequential.  Foolish, foolish people.  You probably know someone like this.  You’re probably already fantasizing about handing a copy of this sermon to that foolish person in your life.

But….let’s be honest here….aren’t we all a little foolish sometimes?  How do you respond when your spouse, or your friend, or your parent ventures to tell you something about yourself that you know is true but that you don’t want to admit or accept as true?  When you are critiqued do you stop and say, “Why, thank you for sharing that with me!  I’ll certainly try to work on that in the future” and then go off and seethe and sulk for days or even months, all the while passively aggressively attacking the person who dared to say such a thing to you?  Or, when you are critiqued do you immediately take offense and then quickly and fiercely tick off all the things that are wrong with your critiquer?  You’re critiquing me!  Take a look at yourself!  Or, when you are critiqued do you smile, and nod, and say thank you, and then quietly and oh-so-subtly cut yourself off from that person, remove yourself from that relationship so you might never have to hear those difficult words again, so you’ll never have to face that truth again?  Aren’t we all a little foolish sometimes?

Wisdom is hard won.  Wisdom is hard won because it means not being foolish.  It means being open to criticism and critique and accepting those critiques that are true.  Wisdom means disciplining ourselves to seek out instruction, even when that instruction is in the form of truthful critique that is difficult and uncomfortable and leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed, like we have just been gutted open and left for dead.

Most mainline churches today require their ministers to go through something called Clinical Pastoral Education.   For my friends and I in seminary, this meant spending a summer serving as chaplain interns in a clinical setting such as a hospital or a prison.  I did my CPE work as a chaplain in a mental health hospital.  The work is challenging.  Usually you face issues in these settings that you have never in your life faced before.  But even more challenging is the group work, IPR group, we called it, which stood for Interpersonal Relationships.  Once a week, you met with your IPR group made up of a number of your peers in ministry and a CPE supervisor.  In this group you confidentially discussed your cases and you discussed yourself, how you responded to people, how you cared for people, how you related to people, etc.  The CPE supervisor would constantly prod the discussion to go deeper and deeper, to get right down to the truth, to get right down to all the things you really didn’t want to talk about and all the things you didn’t want to hear.  Just imagine it as a group of people who would, week in and week out, call you on all your issues and force you to face them.  If you had issues with anger, you’d get called on them.  If you had issues with personal and professional boundaries, you’d get called on them.  If you had issues related to your family of origin, it would all get drudged up, hashed out and drawn out before God and the whole group.  It was terrible!  It was excruciating!  But we had to do it.  Every pastor friend I know has a horror story to tell from his or her CPE experience.  But, we all also grew from it.  We grew in wisdom.  We grew in self-awareness.  We grew in understanding.  And in that sense, the experience was invaluable.

Unlike some of their contemporaries, the Israelite sages subscribed to a dynamic understanding of human personhood.[2] We humans are made in the image of God, in the image of our dynamic, active, living God.  So human beings, the sages believed, are characterized by constant change, growth, or progress.  To avoid criticism and the growth that comes from it, then, to avoid new sources of knowledge and self-understanding, is not only foolish, but contrary to who we are as human beings, and contrary to who we are as reflections of our living God.

The one who breaks loose from discipline rejects his own self, but one who hears reproof acquires a heart. When we reject wisdom, the sages say, we actually reject our own self.  We reject who we were created to be as dynamic, growing, changing, and learning human beings.  When we reject wisdom, we reject life itself.

I planted a garden once.  It didn’t go so well.  At first I was all excited about the project.  I spent the majority of one whole day working on it.  I tilled the soil.  I planted sugar snap peas, and zucchinis, tomatoes and peppers.  I planted marigolds all around the edge.  When I was finished I was exhausted.  But I had the perfect, neat little garden.  And then I forgot about it.  I guess my enthusiasm for the whole project just waned after spending all that time on it at the beginning.  I still checked on the garden every once in a while.  But I didn’t weed it.  And I didn’t water it.  I didn’t do anything to actually help it grow.  Eventually the weeds took over and choked the life out of my neat little garden.  It wasn’t long before it shriveled up and died.

We human beings are a lot like a vegetable garden.  If we want to know life as God intends us to know life, then we need to be watered and nurtured, loved and fed.  We also need to be weeded and pruned, directed and redirected by people in our life who love us enough to tell us the truth.

We can foster these relationships.  If we value the growth that can come from them, then we can seek people out who will tell us the truth.  I’m excited about a friendship that I have had for about five years but that is just now getting to the point where we can tell each other the truth; the hard truths, I mean.  My friend and I have always been truthful with each other but now we are getting to the place in our relationship when we can say things like, “You know, you hurt my feelings when you said that.”  Or things like, “I know this may not be what you want to hear, but I think this is something you really need to work on.”  I’m excited about this friendship because such relationships don’t just happen.  It takes a while to get to this place of trust.  It takes a while for us to feel safe enough with another person to give and receive the truth.

Dan and I work hard on this aspect of our relationship.  We know that a healthy marriage means being able to tell each other the truth.  And after you work at it, you come to learn how to best tell the truth so the other person can really hear you.  For instance, Dan knows by now that he needs to tell me something he likes about my sermon before he tells me what he hates about it.  We need people in our life who love us enough to tell us the truth.

The fear of the Lord is discipline, wisdom; and before glory, meekness. The NRSV actually translates the end of this verse as “and humility goes before honor.” Proverbs, as I mentioned before is not for those with fragile egos.  The Israelite sages who wrote these words of wisdom meant to knock us down a peg or two.  They meant to call us foolish if we so arrogantly believe we are always right, if we so arrogantly act as if we are above criticism and critique.  Humility and meekness are the virtues they applaud.  Humility and meekness, an open heart, a willing spirit, and a desire to grow, and change, and better ourselves so we can truly reflect the God in whose image we were made.

As I conclude this sermon series on Proverbs, I am thankful for all the practical wisdom that has emerged from this underutilized book of the Bible.  I am thankful for its reminder that we are to keep good company, that we need to surround ourselves with people who bring us to life, not to death.  I am thankful for its teaching on money and on prudence, that we are to live and act and spend with care and thought for the future, not just our future.  I am thankful for its insistence that we raise our children with good moral character, and for its reminder that the morals for which we are to strive are righteousness, justice, and equity.  And I am thankful to know that the beginning of knowledge is fear of the Lord, not fear of the world or fear of what others might think, but fear of the Lord and what the Lord might think.  It would be foolish to avoid such advice.  It would be foolish to avoid the truths offered to us from these ancient, yet timeless words.

The end of the first chapter of Proverbs reads, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice.  At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”[3] My friends, let’s not be deemed a bunch of fools.  Instead, let’s open the gates and let wisdom in.  Let’s open the gates to this wise woman of Proverbs who has come to tell us the truth so we might truly live.

Now to the God of all wisdom, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA, 2001), pgs. 98-99.

[2] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA, 2001), pg. 99.

[3] Proverbs 1:20-21

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The Wisdom of Proverbs: Proverbs 1:1-7

What follows is my first sermon from my summer sermon series on Proverbs.

“The Wisdom of Proverbs”

Proverbs 1: 1-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

May 30th, 2010

I eat Dove chocolate.  I eat a lot of Dove chocolate, in fact, because the chocolate is so irresistibly smooth and because the packaging is ingenious.  You see, inside the foil of each carefully wrapped, irresistibly smooth chocolate is a little saying, a little proverb if you will, that you must savor while you savor the chocolate.  Why, just this past week, I opened a chocolate to read, “Compromise is a sign of strength not weakness.”  And another chocolate that read, “Let your light shine, the world is watching.”  And another chocolate that read, “Live well, laugh often, and love much.” And another chocolate that read, “Happiness is an inside job.”

So, you see of course what is happening here, you see that by eating this wonderful chocolate you are actually learning something, gaining in wisdom and instruction, growing from the teachings that have been laid before you by the god of marketing that is Dove.  I find that I learn so much from these little Dovisms that I need to eat lots of chocolate, every day, so as to take full advantage of this opportunity to learn and grow….both in mind and in girth.

There is something about a proverb that we love.  It’s short, that’s good, because we have short attention spans.  But it also makes us pause and ponder.  Not much in this busy world of ours can make us pause and ponder, but a proverb does just that.  Even the simplest (some may say stupid) of proverbs such as those found in a Dove chocolate or a fortune cookie make us pause for a moment and ponder the insight that has been given to us, like a tiny little gift, on a foil or a sliver of paper that fits in the palm of our hand.  Yes, there is something about a proverb that we just love. Which is interesting, because we don’t spend much time with the proverbs gifted to us within our scriptures.

As a source of spiritual inspiration and guidance, the book of Proverbs is almost lost to us. It is not high on our reading list as Christians. We rarely hear it read in church or preached about in sermons.  Not many of us could identify a verse from Proverbs, let alone recite one.[1] And even if we were to try reading this book of thirty chapters, we’d more than likely get bogged down in the tedious nature of a book that has no plot and that quickly becomes forgettable as you read one short little saying after another, and another, and another for thirty chapters.

Yet Proverbs contains a certain beauty, a certain wisdom that is unlike other books of the bible.  This beauty is often lost to us because we can’t read Proverbs like other books of the bible.  We can’t just sit down and read chapter one through chapter thirty and expect Proverbs to hold much meaning for us.  Instead, Proverbs need to be read one at time, slowly and meditatively, like you were reading a really great poem that didn’t open up to you until you have read it two, or three, or four times.  Medieval monks compared reading Proverbs to the methodical and delightful task of chewing on a grain of spice until it yielded its full flavor.[2] We need to take our time with Proverbs.  We need to chew on them, one by one, to experience their full flavor.  We need to sit with them and ponder them as if each was a tiny, foil-wrapped piece of chocolate that will melt in your mouth, and your mind, and your heart, as you consider its teaching.

So I thought we could spend some time with Proverbs this summer, open them up, sit with them for a while, and see what they have to teach us.  The book of Proverbs is known for its practical guidance.  As Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis puts it, “Proverbs are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”[3] Now I don’t know about you, but this sounds really appealing to me.  Faith can get so abstract.  But I want (and need) to know how I can apply my faith to my life.  I want and need some practical teachings.  And that’s what the book of Proverbs promises us.

Today’s text serves as an introduction to Proverbs.  It states that the purpose of Proverbs is learning about wisdom and instruction, understanding words of insight, gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity. Knowledge and wisdom and instruction are all to be found within the pages of Proverbs.  We will learn as we read and meditate on these verses.  And we will learn with these goals in mind: the goals of righteousness, justice and equity.

The goal of learning in order to be more righteous, more just, and more equitable, is unique to these biblical proverbs and the rest of our Bible’s wisdom literature.  They are unique because we typically pursue education as a means to power, and success, and better opportunities for ourselves.  We tell ourselves that knowledge is power.  And “the idea that my power depends on what I know and someone else does not is fundamental to our increasingly information-oriented and professionally structured society.”[4]

For example, when Dan goes in to teach a new class of freshman undergrads at St. Andrews he typically asks them, “Why are you here?”  And the answer he gets is that they are there to get a degree, so they can get a good job, and so they can be competitive in this increasingly difficult job market of ours.  The goal of their education, then, is their own power and success.  They must know more than the next guy in order to succeed and get what they want out of life.

But the goal of knowledge in the book of Proverbs is much different than this.  The Israelite sages who composed these proverbs echo the biblical prophets as they encourage their people to gain wisdom so they can live righteously, do justice, and promote equity amongst their friends, their neighbors, and their world.  Knowledge may still be power, in this sense, but here our power lies in our ability to build and maintain strong relationships and create healthy communities…because righteousness, justice, and equity are all relational virtues.

To illustrate this kind of knowledge, I will pick on another of Dan’s students…Joanna Hipp.  Joanna, you may not know, is hoping to take a year or two off after she graduates from college in order to participate in our church’s YAV program (Young Adult Volunteer).  YAV’s are sent all over the world in order to serve and Joanna is really hoping she can go to Africa. On Wednesday night Joanna shared with the Session her love for liberation theology.  She has a passion for working on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.  And Joanna is already wise in knowing that the best way to work on behalf of the poor and the oppressed is to know them by going and living among them.

I know that Joanna is very aware of the fact that if she is able to go and serve in Africa that this experience will not make her rich.  Nor will this experience make her a success, by the world’s definition of success.  Nor will this experience gain Joanna any credits towards a future graduate degree.  But she will gain in wisdom from this experience, wisdom in the proverbs sense of wisdom, wisdom about the relational and Godly virtues of righteousness, justice, and equity.  And so in this sense, Joanna going to Africa will be a very valuable experience.

Wisdom, in the proverbs sense, is not for our own personal gain.  Wisdom, in the proverbs sense, is not going to make us better computer programmers, or better business entrepreneurs, or better salespersons.  Instead, wisdom, in the proverbs sense, is going to make us better people.

So where do we start?  Now that we understand the goal of such wisdom, where does the path begin that will lead us to such an end?  Well, the path begins here, in verse seven. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”  Fear of the Lord…if you’re familiar with the scriptures then you’re familiar with this phrase.  Oftentimes we translate this fear as “reverence” or “awe” or even “respect” to distinguish fear of the Lord from the fear we feel when we stand at the edge of cliff, or when we get up in front of a large group of people to speak, or when we wake up in the middle of the night because we thought we heard something in the house.  We want to distinguish fear of the Lord from all these common, human fears because we don’t feel like we should be afraid of God like we are afraid of heights, or of public speaking, or of a burglar in our home.  And this is true, we shouldn’t fear God like we fear these things, but the line between ordinary fright and fear of the Lord should not be drawn too sharply.[5]

Lately, I’ve been having some very irrational fears about our children.  I will wake up in the middle of the night at the slightest sound in the house and then go prowling around in the dark until I make sure my babies are okay.  From what I’ve heard, this is not a unique experience for mothers.  Apparently, once you have children you never sleep well again for all the worrying you do.

A couple of weeks ago I was startled out of a sound sleep by a noise in the house that literally took my breath away it made me so afraid.  I’d been waking Dan up so often, though, that I decided to go and check it out on my own.  So I tiptoed through the dark, over to our children’s bedrooms and stood outside of Ella’s door.  I know this may sound crazy, but at this point my imagination had created such a horrible scenario in my mind that I was convinced there was something, or someone behind my baby’s door.  I was so afraid I was frozen, paralyzed by fear although dying to protect my baby.  The hairs on my neck and arms were standing on end.  My scalp was tingling from all the adrenalin rushing through my body.  And I just stood there, outside my daughter’s door, unable to move.  Finally, I convinced myself that no matter what I would see, or what might happen, I had to open that door.  So I took a deep breath, threw open the door, and listened to the deep, heavy breathing of a baby peacefully at sleep.

Fear invokes a physical, and emotional response within us.  It makes our knees knock.  It makes us tremble with adrenalin.  It shortens our breath and makes us feel completely out of control…..which we are when we are in the presence of God.  To stand in the presence of our God is like standing before a closed door.  Behind that door is the God whom we love…..the father who welcomes the prodigal home…the mother hen who gathers all her babies under wings….but behind that door is also all the power this universe can hold and then some….behind that door is your redeemer and your judge….behind that door is a God whom we know and a God whom we will never fully know…..behind that door is the abyss of distance that lies between us fallible, limited human beings, and an infallible, unlimited God.  So to stand there before that door and not know fear is to be, as the bible puts it, “hardhearted.”  When the Pharaoh of Egypt doggedly endures ten plagues because he is too “hardhearted” to respond to clear evidence that he is living in opposition to the real Power in the universe, Moses diagnoses his condition by proclaiming, “But as for you and your officials, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.”[6]

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because it reminds us of who we are and who we are not in our relationship with God.  More simply, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because it reminds us that we are not God.  So here, in this knee-knocking, adrenalin-inducing place of fear, wisdom begins because in this place of fear we realize that nothing else matters more than pleasing our God, that nothing else matters more than doing right by our God, that nothing else matters more than living in pursuit of God’s ideals of righteousness, justice, and equity.

Such valuable wisdom one could only dream of obtaining.  Yet, Proverbs promises to take us there.  Proverbs promises to teach us such wisdom.  May God bless the hearing and receiving of this Word as we study Proverbs this summer.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor, and power, glory and praise, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000), pg. 11.

[2] Ibid, pg. 11-12.

[3] Ibid, pg. 12.

[4] Ibid, pg. 26.

[5] Ibid, pg. 28.

[6] Exodus 9:30, Ibid, pg. 28.

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Preaching Proverbs

I admire poets who have the ability to say something beautiful and meaningful with just a handful of words.  When I find a poem that I like I read it over and over again.  It seems the more I read a good poem the more it satisfies and amazes me.

During the summer months I typically like to leave the lectionary behind in order to preach on topics or on books of the bible that I wouldn’t normally get to if I was strictly following our church’s lectionary calendar.  This summer I have found myself drawn to the book of Proverbs.  Like the great poem, Proverbs falls into that genre of scripture that requires slow, reflective reading. You can’t read the whole book of Proverbs in one sitting.  If you try, its short sayings will quickly run together, become tediously boring and ultimately forgettable.  But taken one at a time, proverbs peel open like an onion revealing layer after layer of beauty and wisdom.  Here are just a few examples to whet our appetite:

A word fitly spoken

is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Proverbs 25:11

Just as water reflects the face,

so one human heart reflects another. Proverbs 27:19

These proverbs are beautiful and perhaps say just as much as any fifteen-minute sermon ever could.  Proverbs can also be funny and inspire us to laughter.  Like this one from Proverbs 17:28:

Even fools who keep silent are considered wise;

when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.

Abraham Lincoln wryly adapted this proverb to say, “It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Preaching on proverbs, then, is a bit intimidating because I certainly don’t want to be considered a fool!  Nor do I want to misuse ancient wisdom sayings that are often very difficult for us modern day believers to interpret.  Proverbs contain much wisdom, but, like all scripture, they need to be read and interpreted keeping the cultural context in which they were written in mind.  Proverbs can also be difficult because sometimes they will contradict each other as they address specific situations and honor the complexities of life.  So care must be taken to not broadly apply proverbs to situations to which they were never meant to be applied.

But, even though they may be challenging, proverbs are also wonderfully appealing because their teachings are practical and they can help us live righteously in all the ‘common’ moments of life. Commenting on the book of Proverbs, Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes, “What makes it possible for the proverbs to come alive even today among people of biblical faith is that they shed light on things all of us worry about.  Proverbs are highly concentrated, and sometimes riddling, reflections on common elements of human experience.  Proverbs are instruction on the art of living well.  They are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”[1] So I am excited about this summer sermon series on Proverbs. I know I will learn a lot and I pray that my sermons, inspired by these great sayings, will speak words of wisdom and truth to a congregation whom I believe are hungry for guidance on an ordinary day when water does not pour forth from a rock and angels do not come to lunch.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

[1] Ellen F. Davis, “Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs,” Westminster Bible Companion, (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY, 2000), pgs. 11-12.

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