Lady Wisdom and the Fiery Tongue

I admit it. I am a bit of a social media addict. My wife knows it. My students know it. My colleagues and friends all know it. I am constantly checking Facebook and Instagram on my smartphone to learn the latest juicy gossip, the latest news, and yes, sometimes, the latest juicy scandal and fight. In these Lectionary texts (Proper B19), I see myself and so many of us implicated today. These texts seem to speaking to us today. Of course we know we should hold our tongue. How many of us have seen the kinds of destruction that has resulted from a comment someone made on Social Media? As the author of James says, the tongue spews forth sparks that set an entire forest ablaze. The trick with social media, I think, is that many of us type in that comment before we realize what we are doing. Over a lifetime we may have learned to better control our tongues. But writing privately on our phones, with the assumption of anonymity, we often say things we would never actually say in public. James’ advice is right on target for a society that seems to be rent asunder by the combination of careless comments and the ceaseless algorithms of social media. 

It is amazing that these ancient texts still speak to us, though, isn’t it? Proverbs and James belong to a certain tradition of biblical writings that scholars call Wisdom. The writings that belong to the wisdom tradition share a few common assumptions. They believe that God’s Word—the reason, justice, and wonder of God—are built in to the creation from the very beginning and can be ascertained by all. We can experience God’s wonder, reason, and justice in our everyday lives. Lady

I sometimes struggle with preaching out of the Wisdom texts, because they often have already said what they have to say in short, pithy statements. The James text is an example of this. It is basically common sense for most of us. We all know that damage a loose tongue can cause. Because God’s reason is fundamentally built into the created world, it should be evident or apparent that holding one’s tongue is better than not. You don’t have to be a good Christian, a good Jew, or even religious all to know how destructive a loose comment can be. This should be common sense. The message is simple. Use common sense. Hold back on those Facebook comments, don’t check your smartphones for social media updates all the time, keep away from gossip and slander, ignore those who dabble in such things, and you’ll be OK, right?

So, I really should just quit with my thoughts now, because I said all there is to say about these texts, right? As I said, the basic message is to use your common sense. But we all know that common sense is not so common these days. The media, our politicians, the algorithms that control what we see, all know that we crave the salacious. Nothing sells advertisements like a good scandal. Some politicians, reality TV stars, and the mini-stars that we all want to be on social media, live and die by the notion that no news is bad news, as long as you’re in the news. And so Lady Wisdom cries out to us too:

“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.”

But we don’t listen, do we? Proverbs 1 paints a picture of the reality of human life in the public square. We repeatedly fail to act according to common sense. We fail to hold our tongues. Again and again, we revel in the latest controversy coming out of Washington D.C., out of Raleigh, or even out of the bedrooms of our neighbor’s home. We amplify it a million times with our media, and entangle it with a thousand more lies and unsubstantiated opinions, and before long we find ourselves wondering, like the author of Ecclesiastes, what is true, what is stable or reliable, where is reality, and if we can find reality, it seems all so meaningless and pointless. We sink into depression and hide under our blankets. We want to tune it all out and turn it all off…but we just can’t look away from the fire, the burning fire at our doorsteps that is threatening to consume us.

Lady Wisdom cries out in the street, in the busiest corners. Do we hear her? Wisdom literature presents God as feminine. In Proverbs here she is a woman who stands out on a public street, at the busiest corner, and speaks to any who might pass by. I will tread carefully here, but I’m sure what has been on many peoples’ minds in the past months are the Kavanaugh hearings and the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary committee. I have never seen this country so divided as I have in the response to this hearing. Everyone it seems has an opinion about this matter. Many of us have raised our voices to be heard, whether online, at marches, or in private conversations with friends and family. With the mailing of pipe bombs, the shootings at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, in Louisville, and most recently in Florida, there have been points in the past few weeks where I have been deeply fearful, so aware of the anger being expressed by everyone, that this country might devolve into civil war.

This is a prime example, I think, of what Proverbs is talking to us about. Everyone it seems is eager to “delight in their scoffing,” whether it was of Blasey Ford or of Kavanaugh, of Trump, or of some other politician. Everyone is talking, confirmed in their own ideas and opinions, but too few of us were willing to listen. One of the remarkable things about Wisdom literature is that it is one of the few places in the Bible where God is presented as a woman. It is as if the biblical writers, in spite of living in deeply male oriented patriarchal societies, recognized that wisdom lies in the too often ignored feminine voice. When she does speak, when she does uncover the hand that is held over her mouth and offer us words of wisdom and healing, we are too quick, all of us, men and women, we jump on her to put our hands again over her mouth. We shout her down, speak over her, and ignore her. As Proverbs 1:20-35 tells us, we may go out of our way to ignore Lady Wisdom, but when we do so we are ignoring God’s own voice, and we do so at our peril, because when distress and anguish come upon us like a monster hurricane, the text tells us the Lady Wisdom indeed will not answer.

But Scripture does not leave us without hope. As texts like Job 38 attest, Lady Wisdom does indeed speak to us out of the whirlwind and calls us to wonder again. You see, God’s wonder, God’s feminine wisdom, God’s reason is built into the very structures of creation. Indeed, God’s wisdom is built into the foundations of all our human striving, society, and shared realities. All we have to do is stop and listen, stop and wonder.

For two thousand years the church has nurtured a contemplative tradition. Over the centuries, monks, nuns, and other contemplative laity have practiced disciplined ways of listening, waiting, and looking for lady wisdom’s voice. Whether through prayer, various exercises like chants, meditative readings of Scripture, or the use of silence, breathing, rosaries, Christian contemplatives have practiced a cultured listening to God’s wisdom in our world throughout the ages. We too, all of us, can practice some of these exercises as well.

Maybe it means taking some time out of your day to just sit and listen. When I can, I sometimes like to start my mornings with a cup of coffee, sitting out on the porch by our artificial pond, listening to the waterfall and watching the sun rise. My wife loves the focus and repetition of doing needlepoint in the evenings when we sit by the TV. Sometimes on lazy afternoon naps it is nice to just listen to my snoring dog sleeping at my feet. Or maybe you have a neighborhood rooster, or church bell that chimes regularly, or some other regularly repeating ambient noise that reminds you to just stop for the moment and listen, and wonder where and how Lady Wisdom might be trying to speak to you in the moment. If we can learn to cultivate such practiced contemplation, maybe just maybe we can be the first to stem the tide of insanity that we see daily in the news and on our social media feeds. Maybe for just a brief moment, as we hear Lady Wisdom calling to us, we might be at awe of God’s mighty power, overwhelming, justice, and deep love in our lives, the lives of our friends, families, and neighbors. Maybe if we just recall that wonder in our lives now and again, we might learn to control our tongues, overcome our superficial differences, and recognize our common brokenness and common humanity. Maybe, just maybe, in those moments, we’ll realize that there are more important things than trying to chime in with our own voices, or hit send on the social media reply we have so passionately and carefully crafted. Maybe we’ll even begin to yearn to hear Lady Wisdom’s deep and profound cries in the midst of our hectic and conflict-filled lives.

Wisdom, as we see in today’s Proverbs text calls us from the town square. The Wisdom writings also struggle with the questions of common sense and fairness. Proverbs, and to an extent, James assume that because God’s wisdom permeates creation, there is an ordered system of compensation for good and evil in the world. Basically, in Proverbs, if you are moral, guard your reputation, and treat others honestly and justly, you too will be rewarded with a life of honor, wealth, and meaning. Job and Ecclesiastes, also in the Wisdom tradition, struggle with this assumption by recognizing that sometimes very bad things happen to good people, and by seeing that sometimes in all this order there can be a certain randomness and meaningless to life.


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