Sunday, June 28, 2015

Soul Searching

Proverbs 1:1-7; 3:1-8
June 28, 2015, Confirmation Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

If you’ve ever looked at the book of Proverbs, you may have had some questions arise.

For example, did Solomon really write this book? We learned last week that when Solomon became king, he asked God for only one thing – wisdom. But the notion that Solomon himself wrote Proverbs is probably not reliable. More likely, this book is an anthology – a collection - of wisdom sayings. Another question you might have had is about the content – some of it seems, well, not so wise. And some of the sayings even seem to contradict themselves. That’s the nature of such collections, though. You may have had a real-life experience that mirrors this. Maybe at some point in your life, your mom said, “Look before you leap!” and then at another point she said, “Hesitate and all is lost!” So which is it, Mom? Look, or leap? If you think of Proverbs as a treasure chest, into which all sorts of collectible ideas have been tossed, and you think of these ideas as possessing varying degrees of usefulness, then you have a pretty good idea of what this book is about. The first chapter sets it out clearly – these are meant to be useful, for the young to gain from, and for the wise to attend to.

Proverbs 1:1-7
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young— let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

For today, we are skipping on to chapter 3, to hear also this wisdom about the faith and faithfulness.

Proverbs 3:1-8
My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments;
for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.
Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.

Think about the best advice you ever heard. Probably, if you do, you remember the context in which you heard it. And my guess is that it might not have been in church, or in Sunday School, or in confirmation class. Advice that comes to us at the right time stays with us, while much of the rest of it falls on deaf ears.

Often, the best advice we’ve ever heard is not advice at all. Sometimes it is a flash of recognition, a light bulb switching on, in response to a well-placed question. Sometimes the flash of recognition comes much later, as we remember a conversation, or restate that well-placed question to someone else. In my training as a therapist, we were cautioned, warned,
“Do not give advice.” “Do not tell the client what to do, or what you think they should do.”
And most people, therapists or not, understand why giving advice is not usually a good idea. So often, it backfires on us.

When I was in seventh grade, I thought I was quite the counselor. I even had an advice column in the school paper. So when a girl told me about her boyfriend, about how he insulted her and bossed her around and lied to her, I swiftly advised: “Break up with him.”
And she did. Was she happier? No. Was she grateful? No.
Was she mad at me?....Was HE mad at me? ….
Yeah, what do you think? 
And I became known as the girl that broke them up.
So I’m wary, as we all should be, about giving advice.

But these proverbs are not some kind of ancient Dear Abby of 500 BCE. These are meant to impart wisdom to the young. These are meant to pave a moral and upright path for the next generation. Just look at this first chapter’s statement of purpose:
learning about wisdom and instruction,
understanding words of insight,
righteousness, justice, and equity, 
teaching knowledge and prudence to the young
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge!”
That’s a tall order!

For the last nine months or so, I’ve been spending most Sundays from 11:00- 12:00 with Will and Hannah in confirmation class. As you well know, confirmation class is not a crash course in religion, nor is it a weekly drill in morality and Bible stories. In our tradition, this instruction in confirmation class is to help our young people explore their own beliefs so that they can decide for themselves whether they will affirm the promises that were made for them when they were baptized.

Our instruction plan, if you want to call it that, follows the Apostles’ Creed – the statement of belief we say when we “confess the faith into which we were baptized.” So we start with “I believe” and then we proceed on through each phrase:

God the Father almighty…
maker of heaven and earth…
and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord…
We unpack each phrase, and we talk about what it means. 
We talk about our questions, and our convictions, and our experiences.

If you were confirmed as a young person, you may have had a different experience. You may have memorized great huge swaths of scripture, or catechism or maybe both. But information is not the same as formation. Imparting wisdom is more than simply “filling a pail.” In our struggles and questions and the claiming of our faith, we begin to find some wisdom for our lives. We bump into our assumptions, and maybe we challenge some old ideas, and we may begin to see the wisdom in some of the things we learned long ago.

Maybe sometimes we even begin to see that our parents and teachers have some real wisdom, that they share with us for our betterment, not as yet another lecture.
We find out that often parents know what they are talking about!
I know – what a discovery!

And we laugh, and have fun, and have inside jokes, and we learn to care about each other deeply. Somewhere in there, we take hold of faith and hold fast to it. So we are not just filling a pail, we are lighting a fire, we hope. We are helping young people move into a new place, where their faith is not something they’ve been given, but something they’ve claimed for themselves.

That’s how instruction becomes wisdom –
not just facts, but understanding;
not just words in the Creed or the Bible, but words of insight;
not just being good,
but making lives that stand for righteousness, for justice, and for equity;
not just information, but formation.

So that’s what we hope, for Hannah and Will,
but not just that, and not just for these two remarkable young people.
We hope it for all our children and youth, and for adults, too.
We hope you will wear your seatbelts, and will not get tattoos.
We hope that you will not always roll your eyes when we offer wisdom.
We hope that you will remember some of what you’ve learned from us.
We hope you are proud to be Presbyterians, proud to be part of this congregation.
We hope you keep coming to church, and asking questions,
and making us think, and challenging our ideas.
We hope you find a place in the work of this congregation
that stretches you, and uses your gifts, and brings you joy.
We hope that when you make the promises you are about to make,
that you mean it – not just for now, but forever.
We hope you will stay connected to the church your whole lives.
We hope you know that we love you, and we are proud of you, and that you are God’s child, and nothing can separate you from the love of God, and that as long as we are here, you have a church home with us.

More than anything,
we pray that this love of God, and this faith,
are around your necks –and ours-- like a pendant,
and written on our hearts
This faith has only begun to take root in our lives,
and if we nurture it with the bread and the cup,
if we water it at the font of new life and forgiveness,
and let the love of Christ shine on it like the morning sun,
we will grow in wisdom,
and we will find healing and refreshment
our whole lives long.