Monday, July 20, 2015

Deep Thoughts

Proverbs 10:1-12
July 19, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We’re continuing with our series on wisdom literature this week with our third and final selection from the book of Proverbs. It is believed that this particular section of the book was used for instruction in some sort of classroom or school. These sayings were directed toward the young, to teach them how to make wise choices. You’ll notice in this section that the proverbs are often statements of contrast – a wise person does this, but a foolish person does that. They contrast wisdom and foolishness, and righteousness and wickedness. It’s helpful to remember as you hear these that wisdom and righteousness always go together. You can’t be wise without being righteous. but you can do righteous things in foolish ways, or foolish things in righteous ways. In other words, we are to aim for the dual traits of righteousness and wisdom.

Let’s listen for God’s wisdom teaching in Proverbs 10: 1-12

1 The proverbs of Solomon. A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother's grief. 2 Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death. 
3 The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. 
4 A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. 
5 A child who gathers in summer is prudent, but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame.
6 Blessings are on the head of the righteous, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
7 The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. 
8 The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin. 
9 Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out.
10 Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.
11 The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence. 
12 Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.

I had plans to finish this sermon before we left for my mother’s last Sunday. But you know how things go – other possible uses of my time took priority, so I didn’t have a word on paper before we left. Then, of course, you’re traveling, so you can’t work on stuff, and then you get there, and you’re seeing family, and you’re tired, and before you know it, it’s a Saturday night effort. Not the wisest approach for a sermon on wisdom and diligence! As much as I am not a Saturday night sermon kind of gal, that’s just how it goes sometimes.

But one of the gifts of this trip we just made was that we got to spend some time with various members of my huge family. So we saw my niece, and brought her eldest daughter with us to Dodge City, then visited with little ones at my nephew’s – their oldest is eleven and they have five more, ages 8, 7, 6, 3, and 18 months. And another on the way. (I know!) And we spent some time with my brothers and their families, and of course with my mom.

Lots of conversation happens, as you can imagine. And lots of family stories get shared, along with some tidbits of wisdom. I particularly paid attention to the wisdom parts. My parents loved quotations, pithy sayings and proverbs.

Mother’s were frequently aimed at us –
“Pride goeth before a fall, and a haughty spirit before destruction.”
“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child.”
“You can get used to anything. You can get used to hanging, if you hang long enough.”
“If someone is hungry, you buy them food – you don’t give them money for a new TV.”

My Dad had a great sense of humor, and he loved funny quotes and one-liners, as do Bob and I. One memorable evening he discovered our book of “Deep Thoughts” For those who didn’t watch it or don’t remember, “Deep Thoughts” was a recurring bit on Saturday Night Live. Dad had never seen it, but he got the idea immediately. He would leaf through the book and whenever he found one he really liked, he would stand up and read it out loud, in a sonorous voice.

On the television show, Deep Thoughts came on like a devotional. A picture of a brook running over stones would appear, and the words “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy” would scroll onto the screen. Music would play and it would seem as if the viewers were going to hear some useful proverb, a poetic truth, or a spiritual lesson. A thoughtful voice would then say the deep thought. And they were thoughts like this:

“Often, when I am reading a good book, I stop and thank my teacher.
That is, I used to, until she got an unlisted number.”

Or this: “I wish I had a dollar for every time I spent a dollar, because then, Yahoo!, I'd have all my money back.”

Or this: “It's easy to sit there and say you'd like to have more money. And I guess that's what I like about it. It's easy. Just sitting there, rocking back and forth, wanting that money.”

My parents were of that generation in which memorization was highly valued. Mother went to classes as a child called recitation classes, where she learned poems and songs by memory, then recited them in front of an audience. Dad learned poems and songs and stories and recited them for talent shows, and for his children.

Dad particularly liked to memorize quotes and proverbs, the true deep thoughts that bring wisdom. He was intent on teaching his beloved grandchildren these important truths. One of my nieces told me that he insisted the kids memorize them! She rattled off a list of them:
  • Avoid entangling alliances.
  • Frugality pays a handsome income.
  • Willful waste makes for woeful want.
Like these proverbs in the tenth chapter, many of the proverbs dad taught the grandchildren had to do with prudence – in other words, good judgment and common sense – and many of them were about money. So why would the teachers of the time of the book of Proverbs, one right after another, strung together like beads on a necklace? And why write them all down together in this long center section?

We don’t know exactly how these proverbs were used in instruction, but we do know that then, as now, they were passed along to children. The reality is that we all hope that we can pass along wisdom to the next generation, that they will learn from our teachings, and perhaps learn from our mistakes. We hope to save them from the consequences of their imprudence by instructing them from our own experience. We pass along proverbs from people like Warren Buffet: “Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful.”[1]

We want our children to be successful. We want them to get on well in the world. We want them to be well-educated, and well-rounded, balanced; cautious but not fearful, creative but not outrageously so, ambitious but not overly competitive. We want them to learn hard work, self-discipline, diligence. But how often do we say we want our children to be righteous? Because you can’t be wise without being righteous. You can’t steal or lie wisely – you can’t commit deeds that are contrary to the cosmic order and still be a wise person. Similarly, such evils are not wise because they produce damage; righteousness fosters goodness; righteousness cultivates life.

One of the things I love about our church’s educational programs – Bible study, and children’s Sunday School, and, of course, vacation Bible school, is that they help us learn righteousness, and thereby, wisdom. As Vacation Bible School starts tonight, we’ll be learning a new verse of scripture each day, memorizing a few short words to stick with us for life. We hope that long after VBS is over and the clever crafts and videos are forgotten, these words of wisdom will be remembered. Such memorization is not only for children, however. Adults can do it as well, and benefit from it just as much. As the reading for today says, “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life.”

The wise words of proverbs are words to learn and repeat and remember. In one of my daily readings, I ran across a piece about the Sufi poet, Hafiz. That name, “Hafiz” is given to someone who has memorized the Qur’an. The poet Hafiz not only memorized his holy book, he also memorized poetry, particularly the poetry of Rumi. He learned it by heart – taking it into his heart. The writer commented:

“It seems there is greater power in words when we take them into our beings at the level of memory. From here they can move to the subconscious and even greater consciousness. Taking wisdom-words in through our ears or eyes, then letting them find a home in our hearts, is a wonderful way of practicing embodying love.”(Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation)

Words of wisdom are more than clever sayings, more than deep thoughts accompanied by violin music and the sound of babbling brooks. I encourage you in the coming weeks to read more of the book of Proverbs, and to find some wisdom-words that resonate with you.

Take them in through your ears and eyes, and let them find a home in your heart. These deep thoughts will be like a wellspring of wisdom in your soul, and their presence in you will help you to practice embodying love, the love embodied in Jesus Christ, and in us. 


[1] Warren Buffett

Earth Wisdom

Proverbs 8:22-36
July 12, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Last Sunday we experienced the first part of Proverbs eight, where we encountered the poetic image of Woman Wisdom. That imagery showed us a personification of wisdom as a woman who meets us in all the public places of our lives – on the heights, beside the road, at the city gates, at our doors, She calls out to us loudly and her voice speaks of the goodness of her path, the benefits of righteous living and the deep assurance that following in her way is walking in life and light.

This week, Woman Wisdom again speaks to us, in the remainder of this long poem that is the eighth chapter of Proverbs. But no longer is Lady Wisdom in the loud and busy urban setting of last week; now she is at the beginning of time and the creation of the cosmos, alongside the Creator who brings order out of chaos. Let’s listen for earth wisdom in today’s reading from Proverbs 8:22-36

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.
And now, my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.
Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favour from the Lord; 36but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.’

Ages ago, before the beginning of time, She was present.
The earth was void and without form, and what would become the cosmos was watery chaos. The Spirit of God moved across the face of the deep, and the voice of God spoke into the darkness, saying, “Let there be light.” And there was light, and it was good.
She stood at God’s right hand, before the beginning of the earth.
She came to be before there were depths and heights, before there were springs bubbling up from the earth, before there was anything but murk and mist and disorder.

Before God molded the soft round hills or smoothed the prairies,
before the earth brought forth fruit and grass,
before there were snails, or even soil, Wisdom was there.
When God marked the boundaries of the seas,
and set the skies about the land,
and told the mountains where to stand,
she was there to sing the songs of goodness and delight.
She stood beside God, the master apprentice in the studio of creation,
and she was God’s delight,
and she was the beginning of rejoicing,
the first word of joy,
and she took delight in all that God had made,
for she saw that it was good.

She took delight in the world and all that is in it,
and she delighted in the human race,
in every living, breathing, dancing, singing inhabitant of this world.
She is the voice of truth, and the voice of beauty,
for they are one and the same.

She now invites us to come to her gates, to wait at her doors.
She knows the whole story –
the story of how the cosmos came to be,
of how the butterfly and the platypus came to be,
of how you came to be.

She knows the whole story – maybe not how you did in third grade,
or what you got for Christmas when you were eleven,
but how the trees breathe out air and how the oceans change the weather.

She knows all of history,
how the inhabitants of the earth emerged from the dust,
how the created order came to have order –
the mathematics, physics, and balance;
why the leaves change color in the fall and the oceans end at the shore.

Wisdom takes the long view of events,
so that she sees in the great and brilliant pattern of life
the implications of the great story, and our own stories-
that we will never live long enough to understand.
This is why she must speak in poetry, rather than the language of logic.
Poetry tells us truth that we cannot otherwise hear,
shows us a terrible beauty we cannot otherwise bear to look at,
extends to us a texture and weight we cannot otherwise ever feel.
We need poetry the way we need paintings:
a photograph can show us something, but a painting can teach us something.
This poem of Wisdom affects us the way art does –
connects us to the earth, to God, to delight.
We are woven into the very fabric of creation, Wisdom says.
We are the focus of God’s delight,
and so we are called to live in harmony with each other and all created things.

Because God delights in us, we build our lives on the foundation of that beauty and goodness, where the damp footprint of God is imprinted in the grass at the first sunrise of the world.

Father Richard Rohr calls it “the roundness of life,” this interconnection of humans and the created order and the Creator, the ordered basis of life that encircles us and our identity. As far back as the fifth century, Pelagius said the same: “The presence of God's spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God's eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.” And in our own time, the farmer poet Wendell Berry has given all of his life and skill to calling our attention to this wisdom of the earth.

Berry – no relation to me! – says this:
“I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is … a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”[1]

When God established the order of the cosmos,
and drew a line to mark the seas,
God gave us also the gifts of delight, of wisdom, and connection:
connection and union with one another through Jesus Christ,
connection and union with God through the Holy Spirit,
connection and union with all the created order through the voice of wisdom.

This delight and wisdom and connection call us – demand of us – that we care for the created order. This delight and wisdom and connection help to give us voice to speak out against anything that mangles God’s earth, that destroys this beauty, that desecrates the holiness of creation, that reduces this delight to a simple equation of natural resources to use or misuse in whatever way we want. To destroy creation is to destroy ourselves.

Whether we participate in recycling,
or protest against fracking,
or reduce our use of fossil fuels,
or conserve water, or cut down on household waste,
or pay attention to where our food comes from,
or simply study the science of climate change,
we are called by wisdom to act responsibly on behalf of this world,
this beautiful creation, in which God delights.

What we eat and drink, where and how we get our food,
how we use and care for the land,
how we acquire and use energy sources –
all these are expressions of our faith,[2]
whether we put words to them or simply live them.

Our own footprints in this garden are not simply impressions in the wet grass;
they leave indelible marks on the created order,
on the seas and prairies and hills and valleys,
in the fields and flowers,
and on the bodies of those
who give their lives in growing and harvesting our food.

Wisdom has known this and seen this from the first flicker of time,
when all that was disorder began to connect, and grow, and produce.
Wisdom has known God and known us
from the very genesis of humankind,
and her delight is in the world and its inhabitants – in us!
She beckons us to come and sit at her feet, to listen to her words,
which sound like the first rays of sun shimmering across silent waters,
like the whisper of a spring breeze through the blossoms of a plum tree,
like the soothing song of a mother rocking her baby to sleep
in a garden bower.
Wisdom calls us to delight in the miracles all around us,
to delight in each other,
and to care for this created order—
to walk in beauty and in peace with all creatures.

Because this is the language of poetry, I’ll give brother Wendell Berry the last word – this is his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
May we continue to hear, and be blessed by, the voice of Wisdom as we praise God for daily miracles.


[1] Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Voice

Image from

Proverbs 8:1-11
July 5, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

This week is the third in our series drawing our texts from the books of the Bible that are known as wisdom literature. In the 66 books of the Bible, we find a range of literary genres – history, poetry, prophecy, letters, and wisdom. Proverbs is an anthology of wise sayings, but it is not a random collection of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations of ancient history.

Throughout the book, several poetic themes and metaphors arise again and again. One of them is the personification of wisdom as a woman. In much the same way, our country, the United States of America, is personified as Columbia, a woman. That imagery is reflected in Lady Liberty, the beloved statue who lifts her torch at the gateway to America, welcoming immigrants, strangers, and travelers to this country.

In Proverbs, this image of wisdom as a woman helps us to see how God’s person transcends gender – God is both loving father and mother hen, both King and Wise Woman. This helps us encounter the vast and awesome glory of God – beyond our imaginings, but embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. In his commentary on this passage from Proverbs, David Atkinson says:

“Wisdom is no abstract concept; wisdom is personified: she is described as a woman. In some places she is depicted by just a line drawing, one or two of her features emphasized for a particular purpose. In others, we are given a richly coloured, almost three-dimensional portrait. Taken together, these sketches introduce us to a woman who speaks the wisdom of God, and who points the way of life. This personification of Wisdom is not a (mere) literary device; it reflects the essential nature of biblical wisdom. Wisdom is embodied. Wisdom is for living. In fact, nothing is truly known until it is lived out in the everyday world. …Proverbs 1-7 gives us a number of preliminary sketches of Wisdom, before her full-colour portrait appears in chapter 8. [1] Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Proverbs 8:1-11

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. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to one who understands and right to those who find knowledge. Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

She is calling out to us, standing on the hilltop and shouting to us. Here she is again, on the sidewalk in front of your house, at the four way stop on the way to work or school, hollering from the city limits sign on the edge of town, standing in your doorway.

No still small voice, this.
She cries out.
She projects.

This is not some internal monologue that only you can hear, not the little voice inside your head that suggests what to do or say. It’s a big voice, a Susan Boyle kind of voice. You remember Susan? She was the kinda mousy older woman who walked out onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and wowed the judges with her voice. She was a church choir lady with “mad hair and bushy eyebrows” and now six years later she is an international sensation.

That’s the kind of voice that wisdom has, in this text.
She may look like a kindly older lady with not much to say, but when she opens her mouth, out comes the voice – the voice of wisdom. Listen up -- everyone that is alive, listen! Use good judgment, make better choices, don’t just be brainy, be WISE! You need to smarten up! (Can you believe she would say something like that to us?) But she only speaks truth – she is not insulting us, she is exhorting us, pushing us, pulling us, dragging us to listen to her wisdom.

Her voice calls us away from wickedness and toward what is noble. She will not steer us wrong, but will lead us in a straight path. That’s what she says, anyway. Many of us may not hear her voice, even though she is shouting. It will make sense if we will only set aside our egos and pay attention. We may not hear her over the clamor and chaos of our lives. But it isn’t for her lack of trying.

Maybe she is trying to shout down our egos, that part of us that insists we ARE better, we KNOW better, and our needs are MORE important than anyone else. There are plenty of voices to chime in on that pack of lies. For example, there’s Ayn Rand, the darling of the Tea Party movement. She called her way of thinking “the voice of reason.” According to her philosophy, which she dubbed “objectivism,” your sole purpose on this earth is to get what you can for yourself. Caring for others is scorned; the only moral imperative in life is seeking one’s own happiness. According to Rand’s so-called voice of reason, the world is divided between winners and whiners. Rand’s take on liberty is that we are free to take whatever we can, and that government should leave us alone as much as possible.

It has some appeal, this way of thinking.
It works well for the strong, the swift, the smart.
Everyone for themselves, no need to worry about others, no need for compassion, no need to be unselfish, no need to care for the poor. Your self, your desires, your urges, drive your actions.

For Christians, that’s not a voice that merits our attention. It is not a voice of wisdom. It’s the voice of ego, a voice that puts self on the throne of our lives. If we are listening for the voice of wisdom, for God’s wisdom, we still that voice, or at least ignore it.

If we believe, as we do, that true wisdom comes from God, as do life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if we believe that, we need to listen to the voice of wisdom, not ego.

Interestingly, psychology has recently caught up to scripture in this regard. It turns out that if we want to tap into the voice of wisdom, that part of ourselves that speaks noble truth, that encourages and strengthens our best selves, we need to talk to ourselves. Many of us who already talk to ourselves will be relieved to know this! But what is crucial about this discovery of psychology is that it works better if we do not use the first person voice when we talk to ourselves. What makes self-talk work, what makes it valuable, is to use the third person – to use our own name! Somehow, if we address ourselves by our names, give ourselves a good talking-to by name, our God-given wisdom can come to the fore.

For example, if I am struggling with how to decide an issue, rather than saying “I must be faithful, and I know what is right,” I would say “Christina, you need to make a faithful decision. Christina, you know what is right.”

An article in Psychology Today, said “the psychological distance gained by using one’s personal name confers wisdom. It resolves what [the researcher calls] Solomon’s paradox:

As exemplified by the biblical King Solomon, people reason more wisely about the social problems of others than they do about their own. First-name self-talk shifts the focus away from the self; it allows people to transcend their inherent egocentrism. And that makes them as smart in thinking about themselves as they typically are about others.”[2] Perhaps when we speak our own names, we open our ears for the voice of wisdom to be heard.

Another interesting tidbit about wisdom – as we get older, apparently we sound wiser!
Isn’t that good to know! Last year researchers published an article saying that young people who listen to older people (even when they don’t want to!) have “positive impressions of older speakers’ greater wisdom, which were associated with distinct age-related vocal qualities.”[3] Wisdom does have a voice, and it’s an old person’s voice!

Wisdom is not exclusive to the Old Testament. Throughout the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letters, we encounter Wisdom as embodied in Jesus Christ. In every instance, that wisdom is relational – it depends on our participation in a relationship that is accountable to others and to God. That wisdom is embodied, incarnational – it is not abstract words in a big thick book of philosophy, but it is lived – demonstrated not only in weighty thoughts but in meaningful words and actions.

That wisdom also involves choice – the freedom of our will – to take the path of folly or the path of righteousness, to walk in crooked ways or in the way of Christ. And while our wisdom is in the image of God’s wisdom, ours is finite, while God’s is infinite. The work of the church is to be a channel for that infinite wisdom – to be the bearers of righteousness, and justice, and kindness. We are invited both to encounter and to embody this wisdom, to participate in it even as we participate in Christ’s life and death and resurrection. We have that opportunity at this communion table, where we make the choice for reconciliation, for forgiveness, where we participate in the supper with all the saints, and where we find wisdom strengthened and renewed.

We find wisdom, and life, and liberty, at this table, even as we remember that we are the church, Christ’s body. We don’t have to become wiser than we are, we only need to listen.

Wisdom is shouting to us.
She is meeting us where we are –
on the road,
at the doorway,
from the heights and in the depths of life.

All of her words are righteous.
None of her speech is crooked – it is all straight talk.
Our job is to participate – to listen.
Sometimes it is easier to talk than to listen. Sometimes we think that silver and gold are valuable, that our possessions and our status and our egos are the most important. But the voice says otherwise.

Proverbs says, “Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold…”

She calls out to us!
Listen for her voice.

“…for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”


[1] David Atkinson, The Message of Proverbs, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996, p. 80.