Wednesday, June 27, 2007

the wisdom of women (proverbs 31)

I have never preached a sermon from the Proverbs. I had little exposure to the Proverbs in Divinity School. The prophets were more interesting, and the psalms, and Job. I first took the Proverbs seriously when I began to teach Disciple IV, which covers much of what we call the wisdom literature of the Bible, including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job but also Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

The proverbs are sayings, strung together like beads, one after another, some repeated. Some of the proverbs sparkle, like jewels, while others seem to express ordinary common sense. There are recurring themes: work hard, be disciplined, fear God, honor the poor, stay away from promiscuity, be honest. You don’t need to read the book from beginning to end, because it is not a story, like John or Revelation. In a way, it is like the experience that your parents might pass along, like advice from your mother or father.

The proverbs are random, and they are mostly commentary on ordinary activities of life: eating, sleeping, working, resting, loving. In the first century, when the Rabbis met to select the books that would constitute what is now our Old Testament, the Proverbs almost did not make the cut. There are no burning bushes, no parting of waters, no valleys exalted and mountains and hills made low. Just ordinary, common, earthy stuff.

I said I had never preached from the Proverbs, but that is not exactly true. There is one passage within the Proverbs that is quite prominent, and it is the concluding portion of the book, on the qualities of a virtuous woman. If the 23rd Psalm is the most chosen Old Testament passage in memorial services, the 31st Proverb would claim the same honor for the remainder of the Old Testament, and when the deceased is a woman, a mother, a wife, this scripture is very commonly read.

And so, when I have sat down with the adult children to plan a memorial service, and they are searching for a reading from the scripture, this one often comes to mind. And yet, like the 23rd Psalm that I preached on a couple of Sundays ago, this is a text for the living, and should not be confined to memorial services or eulogies. It seems fitting to reflect on this text today, which is observed by many as Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day began with a special service in May 1907 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. The service was organized by Anna Jarvis, to honor her mother who had died at roughly the same date two years before. By the next year Anna was advocating that all mothers be honored on the second Sunday in May, and three years later, in 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church made it a national observance. Within a few years the idea had caught on---although Anna Jarvis would eventually file a lawsuit to prevent the commercialization of Mother’s Day, but that is another story.

After Pam and I had been married ten years we went on an anniversary trip to England. We went in the off-season, before the airfares and lodging got too expensive, and we attended All Souls Church in London, where the evangelist and priest John Stott had been the pastor. It happened to fall on what they called "Mothering Sunday", which falls in the middle of Lent, and focuses on returning home and paying homage to one’s mother.

In the liturgical year you will not find a reference to Mother’s Day, but if the liturgy is the work of the people (and that is its literal meaning), there are many making pilgrimages today, in their hearts, in their memories, or in gatherings near and far, for this purpose. It seems appropriate then to ask: why our fascination with this word from the Proverbs?

The writer of the Proverbs, unknown to us, speaks of the qualities of a capable wife, or woman, literally a "woman of strength". In these verses wisdom is personified in a woman: her integrity (the heart of her husband trusts in her), her energy (she rises while it is still night), her industry (she considers a field and buys it), her creativity (she makes herself covering; her clothing is fine linen and purple), her compassion (she opens her hand to the poor). "Strength and dignity", attributes of the King, or of the Lord, are her clothing. She opens her mouth with wisdom…She laughs at the time to come, she is not idle, her children rise up and call her blessed, her husband praises her. And the crowning description: "charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised".

Now, this is a passage of scripture that contains both bad news and good news. I have actually asked several women preacher friends recently if they have ever preached on this passage, and none of them have done so. It is a word that cuts two different ways. Many women read this proverb, or hear it, and it seems to be an overwhelming ideal, an impossible job description; it almost portrays a spiritual Martha Stewart: make your own clothes, get up in the middle of the night to get everyone else going, take care of the family business, work into the night, and oh yes, have something to give to those in need, always be strong and dignified, have something profound to say, but also laugh a little, don’t take yourself so seriously. Your children will affirm you, your husband will appreciate you. And do all of this with a reverence for God.

Many women that I know would hear all of this and they would respond with nervous laughter, or they would give some sign of resistance, as if to say, "that’s not me". The scripture can be read as a confirmation of our culture’s pressure to overfunction.

And yet, there is also good news here. How a story ends is never accidental, how a biblical book concludes is never accidental, and it is significant that the Proverbs find their consummation in these words, about wisdom, and it is not accidental that wisdom is portrayed as a woman. Embedded in these words are the values that sustain our lives, our minds, our bodies, our souls: trust and integrity in personal relationships, sacrifice, going the extra mile, providing for our children, opening our hands to the poor, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, and yet doing it with a sense of humor, because, really, what is the alternative?

When we want to define wisdom, it is a life well lived, a life that matters. Wisdom, in the Bible is not enlightenment. And so we sometimes think, if I just sit here, if I just wait, it will all be revealed to me. No, wisdom is a lifetime of obedience to God, discipline in daily decisions. Wisdom in the Bible is not knowledge. We think, I have the knowledge, I will have control, I will know something someone else doesn’t know, and I can use that knowledge for my benefit. No, wisdom is a way of life that includes justice, righteousness, humility, compassion and fairness.

How do we learn about wisdom? We see wisdom in other people, and today, as we consider this text, as we think about Mother’s Day, we sense that women are often used by God to teach us about wisdom. The writer of the Proverbs is almost saying, "Listen to your mother!"

Two years ago Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year were Bill and Malinda Gates and Bono. Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft, and Bono is a musician who has attempted to get the world to focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Under their faces was the subtitle "Good Samaritans". I bought the magazine and began to read the stories of these three people, people whose lives are very unlike my own.

One piece of the story captured my attention. Bill Gates was building the business, and the economic results were astonishing, beyond his or anyone’s wildest dreams. The personal computer really was an economic revolution. The leaders of the business revolution, including the Gates, lived in Seattle, and Bill’s parents lived in the community as well. One evening Bill Gates’ mother stopped by his house and told him that he was developing a reputation for both the creation of wealth and personal stinginess. And then she found herself quoting scripture to him: "To whom much is given, much will be expected".

When I remembered that encounter, I thought of the proverb: "She opens her mouth with wisdom…and reaches out her hands to the needy".

The good news is that Bill Gates listened to his mother. It is also clear in the story that Malinda Gates pushed him as well. Today, the Gates Foundation has a net worth of over $30 billion. Warren Buffet has contributed an equivalent amount: $30 billion. The primary mission of the Gates Foundation is eliminate and eradicate preventable diseases on this planet: AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria.

Imagine the story of Bill Gates’ life apart from his mother. But I also think today of a number of people who have shared, more quietly about their own journey. I think about people in this church: A woman who told me that her mother had encouraged her to finish college when she had real doubts. A man who noted how amazing it had been that his mother had moved across the country to be near him and his family, leaving behind lifelong friends and a beloved community and church. A woman who told me that her mother had been her grade parent every year of her school career. A member of our church whose mother worked third shift so that she could be there for him when he left for school and arrived home in the afternoon.

I must also say that when I think of women and wisdom, I think of women who do not have biological children, and yet their shape and form the lives of others. Today I think of two women who adopted our youngest daughter when we were getting started in a rural community. On Mother’s Day, they teach us about wisdom also.

We are not in the middle of Lent, and this is not England, but it is a good day to make these pilgrimages, geographical or spiritual or emotional, to reflect on the purposes of life, on those who give us life, to honor sacrifices and to stand amazed in the presence of those who hold everything together, to acknowledge the ties that bind us. And surely at the heart of all of this is wisdom. At the beginning of Proverbs we read these words: "The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord". And at the end of the book we read these words: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

And so the reverence in this proverb is not for women. Women do not need to be put on pedestals. The expectations there are exhausting, and the fall from grace is destructive. The reverence, the fear of the Lord, is for God. This is the beginning, or the better part of wisdom.

Wisdom is a quality that has less to do with charm or beauty, or whatever the current social constructions of charm or beauty are, and more to do with what the writer calls "fear of the Lord". "Fear of the Lord" is the place that we all stand before God. "Fear of the Lord" is, as Ellen Davis of Duke reminds us, "the deeply sane recognition that we are not God". "Fear of the Lord" is a life offered to the One who is the source of all things, an offering of daily habits that add up to a way of life: our eating, our sleeping, our working, our resting, our loving, an offering that is acceptable and pleasing to God.

Sources: The United Methodist Book of Worship; Ellen Davis, Getting Involved With God. Time Magazine, "From Riches To Rags", December 18. 2005.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

down from the mountain

It is re-entry time, having descended from the mountain of Lake Junaluska (elevation: 3000 feet) to Charlotte. I love the mountains, but i also love the city. What can I say?

This conference was exhausting, because of the voting processes leading to General and Jurisdictional conferences (we have not discovered computerized keypads). I was elected as a delegate, my second time for General Conference, my fourth for Jurisdictional Conference. If you don't know what those conferences are all about, you might be congratulating me right now. If you do, you might be extending condolences.

I am glad to be a part of the process, even as I realize how wrenching it will be. Or maybe Fort Worth will be different than Pittsburgh or Cleveland. Maybe.

I begin year five at Providence. That, in all honesty, is a tremendous gift and blessing.

We have several staff vacancies right now, which is driving all of us a little crazy, actually alot crazy. The vacancies have arisen for different and unrelated reasons: retirement, restructuring, vocational confusion, additional help needed in an area. But they have all come at once.

A senior staff retreat has been whittled from two days away to one day on-site to a morning followed by lunch. We don't have the time to gather, but we need to gather. It is an odd reality that planning is most necessary when there are significant changes afoot, and yet in those very times planning seems like a luxury.

I am really looking forward to worship at Providence this Sunday. Worship at our church is amazing. We will have communion at 8:30. I am looking forward to that too.

I have completed one writing project for the Center of Theological Inquiry, and am in the midst of another one, for the Christian Century. Then there is a writing project for the Circuit Rider in July.

We've experienced four deaths in two weeks. A close friend called to say that his father, who is a good friend, has liver cancer.

A church conference is scheduled for this Sunday----we are hoping to expand our parking and columbarium.

Our older daughter flies to Japan tomorrow, for the summer.

Our younger daughter graduated from high school yesterday morning; a great part of all of that was a lunch we shared in a restaurant that overlooks a part of our region. Even though it was overcast it was all very beautiful. Our younger daughter begins college orientation tomorrow. It really does seem like she was boarding the kindergarten bus, only yesterday, carrying the Disney lunchbox.

Our young student from Haiti returns to Cap Haitien for two months next week. He is doing quite well---all A's in his studies here thus far.

Lots of good things, a few challenges, a couple of them major, a few opportunities. I am counting the blessings and asking for guidance and strength, and perhaps even a little stability!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

annual conference

We are off to annual conference, ours being held at Lake Junaluska, near Asheville, North Carolina. Annual Conference is a mixture of the sacred and the profane, the inspirational and the tedious, the significant and the trivial, the urgent and the irrelevant. It is a business session, a camp meeting, an ecclesiastical gong show, a family reunion, a political convention, but in the midst there are moments of transcendence, when the sense emerges that this is a tradition worth inhabiting, a movement worth renewing, a way of life worth preserving. If you are going, I look forward to seeing you under the trees.

Friday, June 01, 2007

holy dove and heart's delight (acts 11)

A number of adults in our church have given their time, their energy and their love this year to make the confirmation process possible for these young people. It is a gift, and it is appropriate for us to celebrate the gift. The pastors are a part of the process at different points along the way. One of the highlights of my year is traveling to Lake Junaluska in early April and sharing in the retreat with them. At the conclusion, Bill, Tara and I meet with the confirmands individually and we listen as they talk about what they have learned.

They are very young people, these confirmands, still being formed in the faith, and yet I always gain something by being in their presence and getting a glimpse into how they see the world.

In the past few weeks I thought back over the years, almost twenty-five years of Confirmation classes. I thought of a rural church that I served, there were two young people, Bo and Heather, a boy and a girl, who were the entire confirmation class. I remember that we met in my parsonage each Wednesday afternoon and read through the gospel of Mark. When they were confirmed, it almost seemed like a wedding, there they were, Bo and Heather, making the promises. I thought about two kids who later played college soccer, one at UNC and one at East Carolina, and how they missed a soccer tournament to attend the confirmation retreat, and what a witness that was to their priorities.

And I have thought about these young people as they have grown up. One is in the military, serving in Iraq; one is a chef; one is a photographer; one is a physician; one is a minister of education in a United Methodist Church; a couple live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming…I am not sure what they do there, but it must be a great place to live; one has become a well-known musician; one is in business.

I thought about some of them as I listened to these confirmands, about their emerging faith, about their families, about what they might like to do with their lives, about their questions. Who knows where they will be in ten years, or twenty? And who knows the power of a seed that has been planted in this process?

In thinking about confirmation, and listening as well to the two scripture passages for today, I began to think about the traditions we cherish, the traditions we pass on—the importance of baptism, the meaning of Holy Communion, the guidance of the scriptures, the very nature of salvation itself---and yet I also know that sometimes God has a way of disrupting our traditions, and doing something unexpected, something new. The traditions meant something to us, and we hope they will mean something to our children.

Peter was steeped in a profound tradition, a tradition of circumcision and law, but also parable and miracle, a tradition that marked his identity. But it was also a tradition that had a lot to say about who was an insider and who was an outsider, about who was clean and who was not, who was righteous and who was not. Peter had had his ups and downs. He had been with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration and he had denied that he knew him at the time of his arrest. And then Jesus had reclaimed Peter, and commanded him to feed his sheep. Peter was there, on the day of Pentecost, and he is a part of the movement and growth of the early Christian movement.

Along the way Peter has this vision. A large sheet, floating down from heaven, with all kinds of strange animals on it. Now, for you confirmands, I am not talking about a game you might find on the internet. But it is a strange vision. And a voice says, “all of this…eat it”.

Now this went against the grain of all that Peter had been taught. “It’s profane….nothing unclean will enter my mouth”. And the voice speaks again, “what God has made clean, you must not call profane”.

Two weeks ago I spoke about Peter’s encounter with Jesus, at the seashore, after breakfast. Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And three times Jesus commanded Peter, “feed my sheep”.

Well here we are, and again Peter is having some kind of encounter with Jesus, who is teaching him a new lesson. God is erasing the distinction between Jew and gentile, clean and unclean, sacred and profane. We thought Peter had already had one conversion experience, now he is having another conversion. One of my best teachers, David Steinmetz at Duke, once noted that “sin is so deep-rooted in the human condition that only a lifetime of conversion can change us into the new creations God has in mind for us” (Willimon, 103).

The evangelical concept of conversion, that it happens all in a moment, and then we are done with it, misses the richness of all that God wants for us. Conversion is not on the list of things to do before my kid grows up: immunization, Disney, have the religious experience. The fullness of salvation is about all that God requires for us, across a lifetime, and we see that in scripture, in people like Peter and Paul, and in our Methodist tradition, which sees salvation as growth in grace through a disciplined life of worship, study, service and witness.

And so we are not done with it, and God is not done with us.

Was Jesus finished with Peter at the seashore? No. Was God finished with Peter at Pentecost? No. Is God finished with us when we make a profession of faith, when we join the church, when we are confirmed? No. Is God finished with us when we are twelve, or twenty-one, or fifty, of ninety-nine? No.

There are always new visions awaiting us. For Peter, this required a shift in his entire worldview. You see, we religious people can become very good at defining who is in and who is out, who is good and who is bad. But God is larger than all of that, and life is more complex than all of that. What if salvation is for the insider and the outsider, for Peter and the gentiles, for the older brother and the prodigal son.

It is no accident that the question facing Peter in Acts 11 is the one that Jesus encountered in Luke 15 (he eats with sinners), prompting his telling of a parable about two lost sons and a loving father. Sometimes I think Luke, who wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, almost 40% of the New Testament, has a heart for the outsider.

A parent will say to me, “my child is different”. The good news is that God’s vision is focused on those who are different: gentiles, lepers, children, tax collectors, the unclean.

We see the world as it is, and if it does not conform to our categories, we make judgments. God sees the world as it is and imagines that it can all be redeemed. Salvation is coming to the last, the least, and the least.

I trust that God will do something new in the lives of these confirmands. In Acts 11.14 there is brief note that the good news brought by Peter is a message “by which you and your entire household will be saved”. And so I will go ever farther in the hope that God is doing something new in the lives of the families who surround these confirmands. God is not finished with us. Some corner of our lives awaits conviction and conversion. This was true for Peter. Much later in the story John is on the island of Patmos, and he also is given a vision. The one who is seated on the throne says, “I make all things new”.

Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Bible, once remarked that children are gifts of God, who bear the message that we are not at the center of everything, and then they become adolescents, and at this stage they remind to us that we are not in control.

Do you have a plan for your life? God says, I make all things new. Baptism is a symbol of that, a cleansing, a washing away of our sin. Luke remembered Jesus standing in the waters, the dove descending on his shoulder, a reminder itself of the dove that was present after the flood, after the chaos, a sign that all things had been cleansed and made new.

And so we sing, in response to baptism, about this holy dove but also the heart's delight, the pleasure of God in all things becoming new, the possibility that God delights in adolescents, that God looks forward to another generation of disciples, in the unfolding vocations of these young people, who knows where they will be in 10 or 20 or 30 years. What will they be doing then? Who knows?

We do know that we can anticipate a lifetime of conversions, these Confirmands don’t grasp it all but neither do we. But it is enough to be here, in this moment, in the spirit, waiting for the dove descend, praying, believing that God can make all things new.

Sources: William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation); Eugene Peterson, Like Dew Your Youth; “Wash O God, Our Sons and Daughters”, United Methodist Hymnal, page 605.