Saturday, May 21, 2016

What We Don't Know Yet

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
May 22, 2016
Trinity Sunday
William G. Carter

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live…
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

We hear people say it sometimes. In the late winter, our nominating team looks for church leaders. We might ask someone to be an elder and she will say, “Let me think about it.” She may drop by to see me, chat for a bit, and then blurt out the reason, “I don’t know enough yet.”

There are plenty of people who are too busy to go to a lot of church meetings. Maybe they were leaders before and it wasn’t a blessed experience. Or they are already involved in a lot of other things. Or they have gotten their eyebrows singed from a small conflict here or there, and reluctant to go through it again.

But if you get to the heart of the matter, a significant resistance to serving God is a feeling of inadequacy: I don’t know enough, I’m not good enough, there are lapses in my understanding of the Bible, my faith isn’t always strong enough, or simply there’s more to all of this faith stuff than I can comprehend.

Biblically speaking, that attitude is the beginning of wisdom. There’s more to all of this than I can understand. In the Bible, that attitude is often called “the fear of the Lord,” not a “phobia” kind of fear, but proper reverence. God is so great, we are so small. We sang it in the Psalm. The psalmist goes outside, looks to the heavens, sees the enormity of God’s glory, and exclaims, “Who do we think we are, that God should pay any attention to us?” (Psalm 8:4) God is so great, we are so small. There’s so much that we don’t know.

It comes up in the Gospel lesson. Jesus prepares to leave his disciples and return to God’s side. He declares, “There is still so much I want to tell of you, but you can’t bear to hear it yet.” (John 16:12)  He doesn’t say they are dummies, just that they don’t know everything. Wow – there are no experts in the ways of God! Christ promises the continuing presence of God’s Holy Spirit to keep teaching us, to keep reminding us of his teaching, to keep deepening our love and broadening our embrace.

Beneath the Psalm and the Gospel lesson is the reality of what Proverbs calls “wisdom.” Wisdom is God’s first gift to the world, created to provide order and continuity and creativity to the world. Wisdom is out there ahead of us, waiting to be found. Wisdom is bigger than what can be captured in books. Wisdom is wiser than what can be taught in a workshop. It comes from the great delight that God takes in creating a universe. It is there in the specific delight God takes in creating this speck of soil called “earth” and filling it with critters larger and smaller than us. Wisdom comes in understanding that we do not control the world. There is a lot that we don’t know.

I realize that’s not good enough for some people. They want expertise. They want assurance that people know what they are doing. Presbyterians have always valued knowledge, building schools and colleges, advocating for education of the public, offering training for their leaders, requiring no less than seven years of college for their preachers.

But believe me when I tell you, spending a lot of time in class doesn’t necessarily make you wise. As one of my teachers used to say, “You can get a four-point … and miss the point.”  And what’s the point? Ah, that’s the question of wisdom.

I’ve told many of you about my grandmother who passed away earlier this month at a hundred and two. She was the wisest person I’ve ever know. She graduated high school at fifteen, not because she was smart (which she was), but they didn’t have a lot more to teach her at her small town high school. If she had been born to a family with money or privilege, there’s no doubt she could have studied at Harvard. But that option wasn’t available to her, and it never held her back. Up until a few weeks before she died, she was reading three reading novels a week.  

Grandma’s brilliance came from her powers of observation. One time, I went to visit. The local shopping mall was new. So we bought the tallest coffees we could find, sat in the center court, and people-watched for the afternoon. Not only was it entertaining, it was instructive. She would smirk and say, “Look at that! Did you see that?” There is a universe full of wisdom all around us, and this is God’s gift. We can learn a great deal by sitting still and paying attention. Grandma exemplified what Henry David Thoreau wrote at Walden Pond: “I have traveled a good deal without ever leaving town.”[1]

A few years ago, the New York Times told about a rabbi who observes a rare Jewish holiday. The holiday is called “the blessing of the sun,” and comes every twenty-eight years, when “the sun moves into the same place in the sky at the same time and on the same day of the week as it did when God made it.” Rabbi J. David Bleich is an expert on the holiday. Every twenty-eight years, he stands on a rooftop and offers a one-sentence blessing to God, who makes the universe and sets the sun in our sky.

What caught my interest is something the rabbi said about his research into the holiday and its history. “You’ve got to understand that the closest thing the Jews have to a sacrament is study.”[2] I love that line – it underscores that faith is something that grows and deepens if it is to be alive. Rabbi Bleich says his holiday is not about blessing a star, but blessing a process. As he says,

“It is an intellectual reflection upon the fact that God constantly creates the universe, and that is a basic principle of faith. It is designed for reflection and introspection, which lead to an understanding that there would be no universe without divine existence.”

There is so much to learn, so much to perceive, so much to understand. How foolish it is for anybody to think they have learned it all? One of the books on my summer reading list has just been written Peter Enns, a theologian in Philadelphia. Dr. Enns was dismissed from the faculty of a conservative Christian seminary, in no small part, because he dared to question religious matters that his school didn’t think should be questioned. The title of his new book says it all: The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. (HarperOne, 2016)

It was Saint Augustine who coined the phrase crede, ut intelligas – “believe, so that you may understand.” Human wisdom begins with a heart given to God and a mind open to expansion. We don’t have to know everything in order to serve God. But service begins by offering our hearts and minds to God, in the trust that God is greater than whatever we think we know.

Years ago, our church asked a man named Terry Singer to serve as an elder. He’s been gone from town for twenty years or so, and just retired from the University of Louisville. Terry was a lifelong Presbyterian, but when our nominating committee asked to become an elder, he said, “I don’t know enough.”

What do you mean you don’t know enough? Graduate of Penn State, master of divinity from Pittsburgh Seminary, PhD from Pitt. At the time, he was the dean of social work at Marywood University – what do you mean you don’t know enough?

He said, “I have some questions about my faith.” Well, who doesn’t? And he said, “I would consider serving the church, but only if I can write down my doubts and questions. I want the session to know what they are getting. If they don’t want me, that’s fine.” The nominating committee really wanted him, so they said OK.

About a week later, the committee got a three-page single-spaced letter, outlining all of his doubts and fears. There were parts of the Bible he didn’t like; they were sexist or domineering. Some of the stories sounded more like myths than historical accounts. He didn’t think the church did enough to correct injustice in the world. It was a stunning letter, and one person I knew thought he should be disqualified. I said, “No, let’s give this to the session and let them read it.”

The elders were silent as they read the letter. This had never happened before. Back then, you had to pin somebody to the floor to get them to serve a term, and here is this guy writing a three-page letter and saying he didn’t know enough? The first elder to speak spoke for them all: “I have had a lot of these same questions myself, but I was too chicken to say so.”

Terry was elected and ordained as an elder. He served his church with distinction. Last week, he retired as the dean of the Kent School of Social Work and was given a lifetime achievement award. He was the guy with the questions, doubts, and plenty more to learn. That is what drove him to do God's work in the world.

What does it take to honor God? A trusting heart, a discerning mind, and hands extended in compassion. God has blessed our church with no shortage of such people. There is plenty that all of us don’t know. But the beauty of faith is that we give ourselves to the God who knows so much more than all of us, and we ask that God gives us the wisdom to do what God wants to get done.

For Wisdom says, “I was with God when the heavens and the earth were created. Daily I was God’s delight, rejoicing before the Lord always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Henry David Thoreau actually wrote “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.” That was his town.
[2] Samuel Freedman, “A Jewish Holiday, Once Every 28 Years,” The New York Times, 3 April 2009, page A-12

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