Wisdom Calls (Trinity Sunday)
May 21, 2010
Sunday, May 30
God of heaven and earth, before the foundation of the universe and the beginning of time, you are the triune God: the Author of creation, the eternal Word of salvation, and the life-giving Spirit of wisdom. Guide us to all truth by your Spirit, that we may proclaim all that Christ revealed and rejoice in the glory he shared with us. Glory and praise to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
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."
All Readings For This Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 with Psalm 8 and
Romans 5:1-5 and
Reflection and Focus Questions
1. What wisdom might be gained in sitting still for twenty minutes and paying attention to our surroundings?
2. What difference does it make to speak of wisdom as something of the heart rather than of the head?
3. What might we learn about God, and about wisdom, "in the most public of places"?
4. Does the universe make sense to you? Where do you see order, and where do you see chaos?
5. What's the "proper" next step after awe?
Text for Meditation
Does not wisdom call, / and does not understanding raise her voice?
For ideas on how to meditate with the Bible, read our article on Praying With the Bible
A most unusual character steps to the front of our biblical stage this week, so unusual that no one seems to be able to explain exactly who (or even what) she is--except that she's definitely a "she," this "Woman Wisdom," "Lady Wisdom," or, as Eugene Peterson translates it, "Madame Insight." Rebecca Kruger Gaudino observes that "[s]cholars have identified Woman Wisdom as a figure of poetry, as the principle of order in creation, as a divine attribute personified, even as God's very own self." However, writers also associate this mysterious figure with ancient echoes of goddess worship, as well as with the Word in the prologue to John's Gospel (that is, with Jesus Christ), and with the Advocate (the Holy Spirit) in that same Gospel. Of course, those last two associations reflect Christian understandings related to the second and third persons in the Trinity (this is, after all, Trinity Sunday). In our reflections, however, we engage Lady Wisdom first as a powerful Old Testament figure, able to stand there, on the heights, and in the crossroads, on her own two feet. As Roland Murphy reminds us, our earliest Christian ancestors had no "New" Testament yet, so "the Old Testament was the Bible that nourished the first Christians. They adopted and adapted the biblical text to their own reality: they 'actualized' the word of God, applying it to their own day and to their leader, Christ." Engaging this text, and this unusual biblical character, then, is an excellent way for each of us, as Murphy urges us, "to become aware of his or her roots in the Old Testament and experience the biblical heritage." In doing so, we may then find our appreciation of the mystery of the Trinity deepened, and our spiritual life enriched as well.
What is a 'proverb?'
Most people know what a "proverb" is, even if they've never opened the Bible to the Old Testament book that carries that name. It's a sign of our culture's biblical illiteracy that many folks confuse sayings from the Bible's book of Proverbs with sayings from early American Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin: perhaps the most familiar example is the saying, "God helps those who help themselves," which does not appear in Scripture but in Franklin's 18th-century Poor Richard's Almanack! Of course, there are indeed plenty of proverbs in this book of the Bible, although they don't really begin until the stage has been set by nine chapters of a long, introductory poem, and this week's passage is part of that poem. In these introductory chapters, the listener--"my child"--is exhorted to learn the "proper" way to live so that good things will follow: prosperity, success, security, even fairness. The Book of Proverbs is one example of Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and it balances the very different perspective of another example of Wisdom literature, the book of Job. Rather than contradicting each other, these two books give voice to the paradoxes of life: we all know that there is much that is true--and proven--in Proverbs, but we also share the questions Job has about the mysteries, and injustices, of life.
While some of the more familiar virtues commended by Proverbs sound like things that lead more to good citizens than to faithful, holy people--hard work, good discipline (of children), prudent economics--there is a repeated refrain that "the fear of the Lord" is the starting point for right living. This phrase refers not to cowering anxiety about God but to an appropriate and deep reverence, and awe, before the One who made us and is actually the source of all true wisdom. Reverence and awe are not easy to quantify or simplify, so it's understandable that this book of accumulated wisdom is introduced by a poem, because poetry frees up--and appeals to--our more expressive, intuitive ense of what is most real and good. Gene Tucker steps back for the big picture here: he claims that this text helps us with the larger question of how an almighty, transcendent (and therefore distant) God can also be present and active and known right here, in the physical creation that we can see and touch--a thorny question for theologians in every age. Tucker contrasts the way the historical books of the Bible (like First Samuel) or the prophets (like Jeremiah) answer this question, that "God is known through acts of revelation and intervention in history," with the "direction" that wisdom teachers take when they claim that "God's will and ways are known in the created order and through wisdom," which is "a link between God and all who inhabit the earth." It seems to me that this introductory wisdom poem is a song instead of a lecture or a sermon, like the songs in a musical, when the message is better delivered in a melody that has a power that we can't quite explain, but reaches our depths nevertheless.
This week's text introduces the source of this wisdom, Lady Wisdom, who stands right in the most public of places--at the crossroads, at the city gate, in the doorways--and not in some secluded place where secret teachings are shared with a select few. No, this teaching is clearly for everyone, for her cry "is to all that live" (v. 4). Eugene Peterson's translation in The Message, as usual, brings this image to life for us today: "She's taken her stand at First and Main, at the busiest intersection. Right in the city square where the traffic is thickest, she shouts, 'You--I'm talking to all of you, everyone out here on the streets!'" Once this scene is set, the lectionary jumps past some long exhortations and claims to the verses in which, as Jeff Paschal puts it, Lady Wisdom is "establishing her credentials" by claiming to have been present with--and even assisting, as a "master worker" or architect--God in creation itself. Right from the beginning, Lady Wisdom was in on the elegant beauty and the rightness and the purpose of everything God made, so she must understand how it all works.
Underneath it all, everything makes sense
Our passage is filled with the sense that God's Wisdom established the way things are, not blind chance, or random events, or the outcome of some primeval conflict, or a detached god, or worse, an evil one. Dianne Bergant traces the source of our joy as being created by a good God who "effortlessly establishes the entire universe as tranquility and order. What in other myths were enemies to be conquered, such as the heavens and the sea, here are docile creatures that have been set in place by the Creator and have been given limits beyond which they cannot advance. There is a solid world, securely founded and wonderful to behold." Our joy, she writes, "springs from the very heart of the universe. It is delight in the glory of creation and in creation's God….The verse leaves us at an open threshold gazing at the universe that unfolds before us, aware that this mysterious primordial figure has a special interest in us." How beautifully this line connects us to Psalm 8, the other Old Testament reading for this Sunday: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (v. 3-4).
The same verb mentioned above that was translated as "brought forth" can be translated, according to Jeff Paschal, as "whirl, dance, or writhe." Saying that God created an orderly (and fair) universe does not mean that God did not enjoy God's work, or was sober and serious in that work. Paschal says that "we do not worship a stingy God who grudgingly gives gifts and who grants forgiveness as a divine grump. Not at all. The triune God is a joyous, dancing God who pours out overflowing gifts to humanity with gladness." And Eugene Peterson's translation describes Wisdom's response to watching it happen: "Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying his company, Delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family" (v. 30b-31).
We might also reflect on the relationship between wisdom and being human: Ellen Davis says that "the very capacity to desire wisdom and ultimately to acquire it--or better, as the biblical imagery suggests, to enter into lifelong relationship with 'her'--is perhaps what most distinctively marks us as human, as the term homo sapiens (compare Latin sapientia, 'wisdom') suggests." However, she warns that the modern age has seen wisdom "outpaced" by technical expertise. Our modern world and its horrors are testimony to the uses to which such expertise have been put, and to what happens when Wisdom, with its "essential connection with goodness," is not part of the picture. Not that technical expertise is evil--it's "morally neutral," she writes, but it "can be easily directed to mistaken or inhumane ends." Wisdom, of course, is more than a lifelong project; it's a relationship, something of the heart and not just the mind, because the heart knows things in a different way than our mind does. Davis writes that "[t]he heart is in biblical physiology the organ by which we know the world altogether. Emotion, rational thinking, observation, imagination, desire--all these are activities of the heart. Wisdom speaks to our hearts. Nothing could be simpler or more democratic--after all, everyone has a heart."
The spiritual practice of paying attention
We might also read this text as a starting point and inspiration for a spiritual practice that is much neglected in our frantic, overly-electronic, preoccupied world: paying attention to creation in order to deepen our relationship with God. Quiet time. Listening. Being observant. Being. (Not "being" on our cell phones, but just being.) Two writers are especially helpful in this area: J. Philip Newell, in his introduction to Celtic spirituality, The Book of Creation, and Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book on spiritual practices, An Altar in the World. Both writers remind us that classes, meetings, and even worship services in sanctuaries are not the only (or perhaps even primary) way we might connect with God. Newell writes: "God is to be found not by stepping aside from the flow of daily life into religious moments and environments, or by looking away from creation to a spiritual realm beyond, but rather by entering attentively the depths of the present moment. There we will find God, wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing."
And Taylor writes evocatively of twelve different ways that we might encounter God in our everyday lives, in the embodied lives we lead, including practices like walking on the earth (groundedness), paying attention (reverence), getting lost (wilderness), and waking up to God (vision). "Wisdom," she writes, "is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before they act. They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know….Wisdom atrophies if it is not walked on a regular basis." And yet she clearly doesn't expect us to take her literally; that is, an excellent form of practice is attentive inaction: "The easiest practice of reverence I know," she writes, "is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate."
Our relationship with creation
The current ecological disaster in the Gulf has turned our attention to our fragile relationship with God's good creation, and has led at least some of us to reflect again on the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, we have shown in applying our technical expertise on behalf of our hunger for more and more resources from the good earth. Trinity Sunday is a good time to stand still, at least for a little while, and perceive God's grace-full hand at work in creation, to reflect on God's love made flesh and living among us, and to give thanks for God's Spirit, whose power sustains us right here and now, in this beautiful but hurting world. Julie Polter's elegant words perhaps say it best, that "this is the truth of God: all creation is one holy web of relationships, and gifts meant for all; that creation vibrates with the pain of all its parts, because its true destiny is joy."
For further reflection
John Calvin, 16th century
You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.
Augustine, 5th century
True wisdom is such that no evil use can ever be made of it.
Barbara Brown Taylor, 21st century
The only reality [of God] I can describe with any accuracy is my own limited experience of what I think may be God: the More, the Really Real, the Luminous Web That Holds Everything in Place.
J. Philip Newell, 21st century
The Celtic tradition invites us to look with the inner eye. In all people, in all places, in every created thing the light of God is shining.
Thomas Merton, 20th century
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.
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