September 1, 2019
My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice
and preserving the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice
and equity, every good path;
for wisdom will come into your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;
prudence will watch over you;
and understanding will guard you.
It will save you from the way of evil,
from those who speak perversely,
who forsake the paths of uprightness
to walk in the ways of darkness,
who rejoice in doing evil
and delight in the perverseness of evil;
those whose paths are crooked,
and who are devious in their ways.
Growing up, my childhood Pastor, Tom Nelson, loved leading our confirmation class. As we gathered in our Neon Green youth group room, in overstuffed, indestructible couches, Pastor Tom shared how beautiful of a gift it was to take time away to learn, discern, and grow in wisdom.
For those of you who didn’t grow up with the reformed tradition, Confirmation for the Presbyterian’s is a class for Freshmen in High School. In confirmation, our young people study, pray, and write a statement of faith, culminating in a rite of passage into adulthood in our congregations. We entrust these young people to help us discern what God’s call is for our faith communities. This can take many forms; they can be invited to step into church leadership as Deacons, providing care for the community, or as Elders, leading the congregation as part of our governing board, the Session. They are also granted full voting privileges when we have congregational meetings to elect leaders or call pastors.
Confirmation classes aren’t about reading Church creeds, learning Church governance, or learning the liturgical calendar. That’s part of it, but at its core, it’s about learning how to ask questions of our faith and tradition, learning the resources of prayer, study, and living together in community, so that we can listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit saying “This is the way that leads to life, peace, and wholeness. Walk in it.” Confirmation is a process of integrating all of who we are, our questions and curiosity, our doubts and our faith, our interests and passions and responsibility to one another, so that we can live life knowing we are loved and blessed by God, and are also called to be a blessing to our world.
When my own confirmation classes started, I was intrigued by the idea of learning how to cultivate this kind of spiritual wisdom. It sort of felt like learning how to use the Force, like discovering I had Jedi powers, ways of tapping into a deep source that connected all things and people, to move the world from how it was, to how it should be. To me, confirmation was an invitation to access a peace when there was suffering, hope when there was fear, a deep sense of being loved when I felt alone, and then to be sent out into the world to do something about it.
Growing up around fundamentalists in my small town, confirmation started to show me why we didn’t always get along. I discovered that part of our Presbyterian heritage is a strong tradition of honoring education and curiosity, of moving past a need for conformity and unshakeable certainty and encouraging education and a diversity of thought. I learned that the first schools that required girls to be able to attend, and penalized parents for not allowing their children to be educated of all genders and abilities, were run by Scottish Presbyterians. Our ancestors in the faith built Sabbath Schools in the US to make sure that everyone had access to instruction in reading and writing, basic math skills to assist in employment and running households. Our grandparents in the faith created training programs for nurses and for women who functioned as doctors in every way besides the title, for the benefit of their communities, and sent them around the world. These missionary schools listened to women who saw a need for societal transformation. The field of social work grew out of the explorations of people of reformed faith in to how to utilize education and wisdom to improve the lives of those living in our cities.
As the school year begins, I am thankful for our rich theological heritage of valuing education, not as a challenge or threat to our walk with Jesus, but as an integral means by which God pursues us in love, ready to gift us with Wisdom and understanding. In searching for knowledge, we encounter God’s call on our lives to delight in creation, one another, the Holy that is all around, and within us.
Our world seems in need of cultivating wisdom these days, doesn’t it? In our national discourse, curiosity is often maligned, compassion is mocked, economists are vilified for speaking the truth, and science is ignored in favor of profits. We have seen the rise of national leaders who do not seem to enjoy reading and exploring ideas that challenge their thirst for power, and God’s creation and our society are suffering for it. Education is being flattened to passing standardized tests, instead of being a process of learning how to learn, exploring how to delve deep into the awe of our one beautiful and precious life. We talk about the value of education in terms of earning potential and job security, instead of a way of being loving neighbors who are informed, compassionate, and connected to those who are different from us.
This is why I am so grateful that book of proverbs is a part of our Biblical heritage. Proverbs is part of the wisdom literature tradition of the Bible, along with the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job. Proverbs is most likely the youngest of these writings, written by teachers and parents, hoping to welcome a new generation of the people of God to dive deep into the spiritual wisdom of their tradition, instead of leaving it for the promises of the wisdom of the Greeks, Romans, and nations that now lived in the land among them. Unlike these traditions, the Hebrew wisdom tradition was not about absolutes and proofs but recognizes the paradoxical nature of wisdom. It’s about integrating all of who we are, contradictions and all, with our faith. Some of the proverbs from early in the book contradict ones later, and this comes to a head in the 26th chapter. In verse four we read
(26.4) Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
And in the very next line
(26.5) Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Written into this book is a struggle that many of us know well; there is a limit to human knowledge, but through learning and exploring, we can discern God’s call on our lives, see God’s delight in us and our world in ways that are transformative. This mixture of knowledge and wisdom, of learning and listening to the whispers of the Holy, in proverbs and the Hebrew scriptures, aren’t opposed to one another. Our Reformed Theological tradition has both; we grow up in our religious culture that shapes and forms us to see how the world should be, while at the same time our religious teachings can also give us courage to look at a situation and change our thoughts about who God is, how we should treat ourselves and other people, and can inspire us to build power to move the world from how it is, closer to how it should be.
Beloved, we are beautiful contradictions, just like the book of proverbs. When we are curious about ourselves, our traditions and culture, when we pour over books and math problems, physics and medical science, we can also come face to face with new ways of understanding ourselves, others, and God. One of the marks of wisdom is to realize that we do not have all the answers, and that faith, mystery and mystical encounters with the Holy, building power through our relationships with other people through the Spirit, are also a part of who we are. The good news is this; in all of our lives, if we pursue wisdom, if we seek God through the sharpening of our intellect, the cultivation of our talents, and the pursuit of loving ourselves, others, and God, wisdom will come to us, especially when we are curious. We can find courage to stand alongside those whose self-worth is threatened, by bullies, dehumanizing systems, and injustice. When we find ourselves threatened, we can pull deep from wells of strength to know we are not alone. We can hear that we are loved, that God journeys with us on our to journey. There is wonder and discovery in this world for us, and it’s not about what we can accomplish or make happen, it’s not to get a job or earn a paycheck, but for something much deeper; to live lives that are a gift to ourselves, and those around us.
Sitting in confirmation class all those years ago, I realized that God was up to something in my life. There was a hunger within me to integrate all of who I was, my love of learning, my deep sense of wanting to care for those around me, and even deeper, more scary to admit, this sense that there was a deeper love that I was called to experience. Learning about theology, asking ultimate questions about justice and love, freedom and responsibility, I was transfixed by what seemed possible. Could it really be true, I wondered, that I could be loved this extravagantly? That the bullies who tormented me for being different, that my father’s seeming inability to care for anyone but himself, that the injustice of a world hell-bent on war and poverty could be overcome through encountering God’s love set loose in the world? It seemed too good to be true. And yet, this call on my life to be rooted in love and wisdom kept popping up in the strangest of places. In school, I found myself being filled with a sense of awe and wonder not only at what I studied about the world, but also by this deep sense that God was up to something powerful among it all. I had all these passions growing within me; Music and Drama, Literature and photography, swimming and hiking and enjoying my friends. My life seemed full of too many options. The thirst for wisdom, for integration, it stuck in my mind, and when I enrolled in College, I found strength and confirmation of my questions and hope. I wondered, how do you major in seeking God’s wisdom and wholeness? My first day on campus, the different academic departments had a course fair. Each department set up a table, and talked to new students, trying to entice first years to sign up for their intro classes. The Physics department had a ping-pong table set up, with a big sign that said “Entropy Happens: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ultimate Heat Death of the Universe.” I appreciated the nerdiness. I wandered around, feeling lost, wanting to learn it all. Then I saw the Religious Studies Department, and thought, oh why not. What’s the harm in talking to them? I met Rob Kugler, a former Lutheran Pastor, now head of the department, one of the first scholars who had access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. We talked for a bit, and I shared that I was trying to decide what to study. “Why choose?” he asked, with his wry smile. “If you do it right, you can explore it all, and integrate it into everything you study. You’re Presbyterian, right? Your people trust that God’s in all of it. The fun part about religious studies is you get to bring all of who we are, all these disciplines to these ancient traditions of wisdom to see what we can discover together.” I was hooked, signed up for intro to Old Testament, along with Photo 101, Scuba Diving and West African drumming, and never looked back.
Beloved, we don’t have to choose between God and our questions, our faith and our curiosity, our passions and discipleship. God’s in all of it, from art to Physics equations, bidding us to go deep in the search for our place in the family of things. May we be a people who cultivate wisdom, with all the gifts God has given us, bidding us home. Amen.