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  • Pastor Gary W. Charles

Wise Words


Text: Proverbs 8, selected verses

The book of Proverbs is tucked away in the middle of the Old Testament. It is an odd book in many ways. There are no stories, no dramatic events recounted, and no clear beginning and end. In some ways, reading the proverbs is like opening a fortune cookie to find the wisdom of the day without the lucky Lotto numbers.

A few of my favorite proverbs are: “Better to meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly” or “Like a bad tooth or a lame foot is trust in a faithless person in times of trouble” or the proverb my grandmother would quote for my teenage edification, “As a door turns on its hinges, so does a lazy person in bed.”

Many proverbs are pithy, smart, and worth remembering and practicing, but the book of Proverbs is more than a collection of Near Eastern common sense. The book opens with a series of poems that stretch the imagination. Wisdom takes on a human form and it the form of a woman. In Hebrew, the woman is called “Hokmah” and in Greek her name is “Sophia.” In English, she is called “Lady Wisdom.”

Some years back, there was a controversy in the Presbyterian church over this woman. Some even prayed to “Sophia” and when they did you would have thought that the world was coming to an end.

In the fourth century, a Christian named Arius argued that since Lady Wisdom was created by God and since Paul called Jesus “the wisdom of God” then wisdom and Jesus were one in the same. Therefore, Jesus was not God, but a creation of God. So much for the Trinity on this Trinity Sunday! Well, Arius lost in the church courts. They said Arius had misread the poetry about Lady Wisdom.

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, warns about reading the poetic in the Bible as prose. He writes: “We live in a community that has come all too often to expect nothing but prose. It is a prose world for all those who must meet payrolls and grade papers and pump gas and fly planes. When the biblical text, too, has been reduced to prose, life becomes so prosaic that there is a dread dullness that besets the human spirit . . . We have become so beaten by prose that only poetic articulation has a chance to let us live” (from Finally Comes the Poet).

So, to embrace the poetic and to venture far from the land of prose, let me introduce you to a special woman known to some as Hokma and others as Sophia and still others as Lady Wisdom. According to Proverbs, she rides with us on our morning commute, awaits us when we get to the office, jogs with us on our afternoon run, nudges us when we are tempted to make a bad choice, and disturbs us when we too quick to judge and too slow to listen.

Her company is not to be matched. She has no patience with arrogance and she stands staunchly beside any true, wise leader. She does not play games. She is not coy or distant, but engaged and accessible. She is a true friend and she is the joy of all who know her. She was the first of God’s creations, long before there was a llama, an inchworm or a T-Rex.

The early church writer Tertullian described women as the “devil’s gateway to hell.” What nonsense. Just ask Hokmah or Sophia or Lady Wisdom. This woman is God’s gateway to wisdom, to breathtaking joy, to delicious delight.

It is rumored that there was a time when people sought the counsel of Lady Wisdom. Not so much today. In fact, I rarely hear her name mentioned. If people do mention her, it is with pity, looking on her like a homeless person on a park bench. Most judge her behind the times and someone who has lost her charm.

“According to Islamic tradition, Allah was moved by the sad condition of humanity and of the earth itself to send the archangel Gabriel on another mission to earth. Perhaps the Holy Book, the Koran, is too difficult, Allah thought. Gabriel can restate its wisdom in very simple terms, so that faith will be more effective, believers will live with more integrity, and the earth will be healed. So, Gabriel set out; he traveled for a long time, all over the globe, using all the resources of heaven to speak the simple wisdom of Allah. Finally, he returned, utterly exhausted, his wings badly soiled. When Allah asked him if he had delivered the message, Gabriel replied, ‘Yes, certainly, but people did not have time to listen!’” (Ellen Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, WBC).

Too often today, Lady Wisdom has been replaced by Alexa and cable, by catalogues and the internet. Who needs this woman as a life companion when we can merge our minds on the information highway? Who wants this woman as a companion when she places demands on us that are not always fun and will not necessarily earn us an extra dime?

In Daniel Quinn’s marvelous novel, Ishmael, the main character is a child of the sixties who still believes the world can be saved. He says, ‘I couldn’t shrug it away . . . and in my innocence I thought there had to be someone out there with an unknown wisdom who could dispel my disillusionment and bewilderment.

“I didn’t want a guru or a kung fu master or a spiritual director. I didn’t want to . . . uncover past incarnations . . . I was after something . . . but it wasn’t . . . anywhere that I could discover.”

It is shame no one introduced Ishmael to the book of Proverbs, made a formal introduction to Lady Wisdom. She is, after all, not that hard to find. She is sitting at Starbucks and walking into the next AA meeting and is in line next to us at Harris Teeter and is waiting for the next machine at the gym. She is ready to offer insight on how to make life rich and glad and free. She will not provide us with ten tips to get rich, but she will lead us to sure fire ways to know God and to be whole. The Apostle Paul reminds us that Lady Wisdom is also first cousin to Jesus. Paul writes: “We preach Christ crucified, . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

So, when you tire of the so-called wisdom of the Supermarket tabloids or the so-called wisdom of inane commentary on talk radio or the simplistic nationalistic mantras of prosperity and success, I commend the wisdom of a woman who does not age with time, a woman who is playful and who thoroughly enjoys life, who sings while walking down the mall in Charlottesville, and who dances with an impish joy in every step she takes.

Careful, though, when you open up the Proverbs and bump into this woman. Her wisdom may well turn your life upside down and inside out. So, come Hokma. Come Sophia. Come Lady Wisdom. We need you!

AMEN

That is one ending to the sermon, but to be fair to the spirit of Lady Wisdom, I think that today a poet should have the final word. So, I offer these words from another poet and wise woman, Mary Oliver:

For years, every morning, I drank

from Blackwater Pond.

It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,

the feet of ducks.

And always it assuaged me

from the dry bowl of the very far past.

What I want to say is

that the past is the past,

and the present is what your life is,

and you are capable

of choosing what that will be,

darling citizen.

So, come to the pond,

or the river of your imagination,

or the harbor of your longing,

And put your lips to the world.

And live

your life.

(Mary Oliver, “Mornings at Blackwater,” p. 102 of Devotions)


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