The Path of Wisdom

September 13, 2015

Bible Text: Proverbs 1:20-33 |

Our Old Testament reading today is from the book of Proverbs – a book we don’t hear from too often in the lectionary – or anywhere else for that matter. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t tell stories; they are “proverbs” after all, and we tend to prefer narratives with plots and intrigue and characters we can relate to.

But, perhaps at a more fundamental level, we rarely read from the Proverbs because they’re simply an exhortation to wisdom, and ours is not a society that pursues or promotes wisdom in any substantive way. We prefer to be entertained. But – truth be told – in this regard we’re probably not very different from most other cultures throughout history. Human nature always bends towards the comfortable and the amusing. After all, that is why the book of Proverbs was written in the first place – as a corrective to that sort of sluggishness.

Tradition tells us that Proverbs was written principally by King Solomon in the tenth century. It was intended primarily as a guidebook for young men – the future leaders – laying out for them the more noble path of wisdom. But, although that might have been their origin, from the beginning Proverbs was recognized as being universally applicable, and that’s why it has always been included in the canon of Scripture.

But before we go on, let me say this about leaders, especially as we’ve just entered another cycle of presidential campaigning. Wisdom should be the first priority we should seek in our elected officials. It is wisdom that creates statesmen and diplomats of the highest caliber, which is what we desperately need. Wisdom will be required above all else when the urgencies of this world descend upon us. What else can guide our leaders in creating legislation that will determine the structure of so many societal conditions? When the Syrian refugees come fleeing from the horrors of war, do I want a leader who is ruled by fear or selfishness, or smug political posturing, or do I want one that is wise? For from wisdom will come all else that is needed.

But where does wisdom come from? For surely it’s not guaranteed with old age. Rather, what we find is that those who pursue wisdom in this life gain it; they become the men and women we look up to, and hope to become like. As Wisdom personified says of herself later in Proverbs, “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (Proverbs 8:17).

So how do we “seek wisdom” diligently? Where is she to be found? That’s what I’d like to explore this morning.

First, from Proverbs and throughout the scriptures, we hear again and again, that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (e.g. Proverbs 1:7). And by “fear of the Lord,” I understand that principally to mean a healthy recognition that God is God, and we are not. It’s not to say that we have a flawless faith in God, or absolutely correct doctrine about God, but that we maintain a posture before God of humility. “God, whoever you are, I recognize that you are before me and it is your right to do and to be as you will. And I want to live my life learning what this means.”

But, of course, God is invisible, and God’s voice is rarely heard in any audible way. And so I believe a second source of wisdom is to be in relationship with the wise. Who are the people in your life who demonstrate wisdom and live with a gracious maturity? Spend time with them and be formed by them. When I was in my mid-twenties I was befriended by Roy Millar. He was my parent’s age and he felt God calling him to take early retirement, leaving a prestigious job, so he could become a mentor to young men and women who were making their way in this world. His love and attentiveness to me were essential in my formation at a critical stage of life, helping me to believe that I could be more than I feared I was capable of.

Third, a simple – but often terrifying – step towards wisdom is simply to live honestly. And by “honestly” I mean, stop presenting a white-washed version of yourself that tries to conceal your flaws and fears; it just makes things worse. It’s like someone who has a scab on their face that they try to conceal with a lot of makeup. The result’s disgusting: just a lumpy, ugly mess. We do the same thing with our lives. Rather than living honestly with our fears and self-doubt, we try instead to impress each other, to out-do one another with our wit and our stories and bravado. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to a counselor or therapist, I always have to coach myself ahead of time, Be honest. Don’t try to impress them. You’re talking to this person because you’re trying to understand yourself, so give them your unedited self.

And that brings us to a fourth point: Know thyself. Do whatever you can to understand who you are and why you behave as you do. After all, we all function with patterns of learned behavior – various coping skills we’ve developed over a lifetime to survive in this world. Like most coping skills, they’re adequate in their time, but rarely useful in the long-run. We want to move past those into a flourishing place where we’ve discovered the freedom to love with gracious and generous hearts.

Fifth: learn to tame your tongue. As Mark Twain famously said, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” Or as the apostle James writes, our little tongues have as much power over our lives and the lives of others as a little rudder has to control a mighty ship. Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was an optimistic fool. We all know that the damage that lasts for life is not that of sticks and stones, but from the hurtful things that have been said, and live on in us like a cancer on our souls.

And with a tamed tongue comes its companion in wisdom: the gift of listening – really listening – to listen as one who is always ready to learn. My father has a rule whenever he goes to the hardware store, and that is to find an old man who works there, and to ask his advice on whatever project Dad’s working on. As a kid, it used to embarrass me because my dad would act like he didn’t know the first thing about what he was doing, even though he’s fairly competent. “You’ll always learn something new if you act like you don’t know anything,” he’d tell me. And that is true for life. Not that you have to present yourself as a fool, but certainly as one who believes that there is always more to be learned, and the recognition that we are surrounded by teachers, often in the most unlikely forms.

And then, of course, there are the basic spiritual disciplines: prayer, worship, charity, learning. As with all the worthy disciplines of life, over the years, it is these that form the character of a person. And unlike work or household responsibilities, the spiritual disciplines are perceived as “optional” and thereby often ignored or deferred, to our detriment.

I especially want to encourage you today to take advantage of the opportunities St. John’s offers for spiritual learning, since today kicks off the new program year at St. John’s.

The atrium for our children is extraordinary. It takes children and their spirituality seriously, fostering in them a real and formative relationship with Jesus, their Good Shepherd. But you’ve got to be here for it to do any good. And these childhood years go by so quickly – and the window is small.

Laura is creating a youth group where teenagers are also treated seriously and invited into a meaningful faith that will help them to choose the path of wisdom in knowing who they are in this world and what God is calling them to be.

But, of course, learning doesn’t end when we graduate from school. We are continuing to be formed, continuing to “be converted” if you will, into image bearers of God. Since the adult Sunday School class began their “Ubuntu” Bible study, I’m regularly struck how that reflective process is calling me into deeper steps of faith and a closer walk with God.

In October we’re offering a two day conference for elders in the church – a conference that will explore the unique spirituality of the later years in life – the harvest that is possible after f many, many seasons of living.

The path of wisdom is one that is chosen. It is deliberate and sometimes costly. But in the end, all that it is costing us is that we lay down those false parts of our selves and our identities, and take up our truer selves that we were born to be – our truer selves that have learned to “fear the Lord” in the healthiest and truest of ways. I pray that St. John’s may be such a place where wisdom is nurtured and flourishes.

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