by Daniel Harrell
I spent this past week kayaking on Lake Superior where I capsized for the first time. In happened in the face of a pretty nasty north wind that churned up four foot waves--big when you’re in a kayak. It was good to get that over with. Like falling off a horse, they say you’re not a true paddler until you’ve keeled over at least once—though I would have preferred water warmer than 38 degrees. I was paddling with an old buddy of mine with whom I have traversed numerous waterways between here at the Atlantic, both the blissful calm and the turbulent chop, both the literal and the metaphorical. Paddling on Tuesday through some especially dense fog--another kind of adventure--navigating solely by compass toward our next destination, we reviewed some of the larger decisions we'd each made in our lives, many of which were made, like major decisions tend to be made, in the dense fog of uncertainty. The compass in these moments is what the Bible calls wisdom, will if you find it, Scripture says, "you will find a future, and your hope will not be [sunk]."
Wisdom is personified as a woman her in Proverbs, raising her voice at the crossroads, promising to “love those who love me, and to be found by those who diligently seek me. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice. Happy are those who keep my ways." Wisdom is female, perhaps because her ways are not particularly cut and dried or black and white. ABC News' Cokie Roberts recently quipped that women tend to think in "fifty shades of grey." While her reference was to that saucy bestseller especially popular among female readers, I'll take a different road here, having not read that book, and liken fifty shades of grey to that fog on the lake. Sometimes wisdom entails walking by faith; taking a direction without a certain destination, not knowing exactly where you’ll be until you get there. “Wisdom,” Jesus said, "is proved right by her actions."
For King Solomon, son of King David and ancestor of Jesus, authored much of what Proverbs teaches. Granted one wish by God for anything he wanted, Solomon asked for wisdom by which to govern wisely. Delighted, the Lord supplied Solomon’s wish in abundance, and Solomon became widely acknowledged as the smartest man on the planet. In the end, however, Solomon’s shunned God’s gift, and went on to make catastrophic choices that eventually brought his kingdom to ruin. "Those who walk in wisdom come through safely," Solomon admitted, "but those who trust in their own wits are fools." Wisdom is proved right her her actions.
And yet even in failure, or perhaps because of it--you’re not a true paddler until you capsize--Solomon’s name remains synonymous with wisdom. In somewhat random fashion over the next several weeks, I’d like to navigate some of this wisdom with you as found in Proverbs chapters 10-12, sayings specifically ascribed to the king.
Chapter 10, Proverb 10: “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.” You may remember that old Seinfeld episode where a bit of grapefruit pulp from Jerry’s healthy breakfast squirted into George’s eye. George went through the entire day unable to stop winking. As a result, everyone he encountered hilariously misinterpreted everything he said. Try it yourself. Devote a day to following every statement you make with a quick wink and watch the reactions. There’s a great deal of suggestive power in closing one eye. Beyond any flirtatious connotations, winking is the non-verbal admission of deception with an added twist of complicity. A wink both acknowledges the lie and invites the deceived to partake in it. The Hebrew word for wink also means to pinch or to bite. Winking attempts to dilute deception with playfulness, but making light of deceit actually increases its darkness. Not that the Lord is opposed to facial gestures per se, but an effort to unwisely minimize wrongfulness, is, well, nothing to wink at.
The second part of this couplet commends a bold rebuke. “Whoever winks the eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.” Solomon denounces winking as taking permission to distort reality to serve your own needs. You knowingly deceive others but also yourself. There's the true story of a church that completed its “phase-one-58-million-dollar-building-project-hallelujah,” only to have their celebrity Senior Pastor publicly acknowledge an illicit affair he’d been having with the church secretary. Such sin remains remarkably unimaginative, demonstrating again the high correlation between oversized sanctuaries and oversized libidos. Absolute power absolutely corrupts. Making this particular account more disturbing was that church elders knew of the Senior Minister’s sin but “winked at it” rather than jeopardize the building project’s completion and the church's financial investment. The neighboring community responded by shaking its collective head, chalking up the whole scandal as yet one more reason to spend Sunday mornings on something more worthwhile than worship.
Granted, it would have been awkwardly unpleasant for somebody to have confronted this senior minister; but if anybody had cared enough about the man or the church, they should have done it. Maybe that was the problem: nobody cared enough. Or maybe the responsibility of caring felt too heavy. It is much easier to categorize another’s sin as none of your business. If nothing else, you'll get to relish the ensuing gossip and scandal, which all of us do love. Besides, who am I to rebuke the minister or anybody else? Isn’t that the Holy Spirit’s job? Yes. But what about when we close our ears to the Spirit? Who’s to say that you can’t be the hand of the Holy Spirit to smack some sense into a sinner’s head? Such confrontation does take courage. Therefore Solomon tacks the adverb “boldly” alongside rebuke.
However "to boldly rebuke" is not authorization to be judgmental and Pharisaic. Jesus’ admonition against pointing at splinters in other's eyes without acknowledging the 2x4 protruding from your own still applies. Blessed instead are the peacemakers, Jesus said, which Solomon asserts to be the goal of bold rebuke. We confront the hard reality of sin for the sake of shalom. A bold rebuke should work like sunlight. It unambiguously exposes the wrong yet also provides the warmth required for repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation to occur. If you care about somebody you don’t wink at their sin, you muster the courage to smack them upside their head. But you then take that same hand and guide them back onto the way of righteousness that is the path to life—a path you’re more than willing to travel alongside them—because you love and because you care.
“Whoever winks their eye causes trouble, but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.”
Chapter 10 Proverb 17: “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but one who rejects a rebuke goes astray.” Smacking somebody upside their head is one thing, getting smacked upside your own is another. Who likes being told they messed up? Who likes being exposed, corrected and humiliated? Nobody. Nobody likes feeling stupid or guilty or found out. Consequently we’ve conditioned ourselves to respond to correction with anger and resentment. We deny, defend, evade and pretend, all in order to rationalize our wrongness. However, instead of letting resentment be as a green light to self-righteousness, we need to see it for the God-righteous red-light it might be. Angry at being corrected? Don’t be a fool. Take a deep breath and pay attention, you may end up learning something.
While in New England last week speaking at a faith and science conference in June, I was a reacquainted with an old friend, Deb, who is the new president of the organization that sponsored the conference. Deb is formerly professor of physics and astronomy and I knew her and her husband, a biology professor, from their days as students at MIT and Harvard respectively. They both attended my church in Boston and I had provided their premarital counseling 20 years prior, a fact I had completely forgotten until Deb introduced me to speak. She said that my counseling had clearly served them well, though I can't imagine what I would have known about marriage way back then that would have helped anybody.
An encounter with Deb that I did remember followed after preaching some sermon science to make a point about sin. Having read a few articles about thermodynamics, I tried to assert that entropy in the world was a result of Adam and Eve biting off more than they could chew. By way of refresher, entropy is the amount of energy in a closed system unavailable for work. That's what the article said. The way entropy works out in reality is in the fact that left to itself, everything naturally moves toward disorder and decay. You have to clean your house, it doesn’t clean itself. Inasmuch as disorder and decay are contrary to order and life, apt characteristics of God, it follows that entropy must have been absent from creation in Genesis. Why would God make a world destined to die?
After the benediction, Deb approached me somewhat hesitantly. Maybe I’d best stick with theology on its own merits, she meekly suggested, and leave biology and physics to the scientists. Unless the world operated according to a whole different set of rules in the beginning, entropy had to present in Eden because without it there could have been no organic life. Death and decay are essential for new life to emerge. Without entropy, the ensuing overrun of bacteria and bugs alone would have totally overwhelmed Adam and Eve. Eating forbidden fruit would have been the least of their worries. According to the laws of nature, of which we believe God himself to be author, even without biting that apple, Adam and Eve still would have died. Physical death has never been a Biblical evil. Jesus himself dies for the sake of new life. The death that separates us from God is not physical but spiritual death, that loss of relationship with the Lord that happens when we reject his ways and refuse to have faith. That’s the death that Adam and Eve brought into human existence. Entropy may not occur in heaven, but if it doesn’t, it will have to be because new creation operates according to a whole new physics, one that hopefully excludes at least some of the bugs.
I told Deb I remembered her rebuke from twenty years prior, and she was embarrassed to say she remembered it too. But then I told her how her rebuke had led me onto a twenty year quest to understand science better, so that the next time I used it in a sermon I at least approximated what was scientific fact. I went on the write a book and speak and last week with my lecture receive thanks and appreciation for what I said (as a pastor) from all of the chemists and biologists and physicists in the room.
It is our pride that prevents us from welcoming rebuke and correction; pride that operates as a sinister kind of "phantom wisdom," duping us into thinking we know it all and are therefore unteachable. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga Jr. describes pride as that stubborn amalgamation of ignorance and arrogance, rendering fools as those who are often in error but never in doubt; people who go on to give others "a piece of their mind they can hardly afford to lose.”
“Whoever heeds discipline is on the road to life, but whoever ignores correction wanders astray.”
Chapter 10 Proverb 19: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.” Do you ever feel at the end of the day that you have talked too much? In preaching classes I teach I’ll often tell students that the first skill any preacher must master is not the ability to speak, but the ability to stop. That way your congregation can always have something good to say about your sermon. Even if it was bad, at least it was short.
Many years ago I had the privilege of studying under Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest whose writings have been for many the way of wisdom. Nouwen asserted how any speaking we do should emerge from and return to a place of silence. Silence, he said, represented obedience (obedience from the Hebrew word to hear). It is only in our own silence that we can hear the Spirit and the people with whom we speak. So often in our listening we hear only our own voices, our own anxieties, our own anxiousness to respond to rather than to understand words spoken to us. Nouwen wrote, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing…not healing, not curing…[not fixing, not doing something] is a friend who cares.” There’s an ancient and familiar Stoic maxim that says because you have two ears but only one mouth, you should listen twice as much as you speak.
Silence creates space for God to work and to heal. It prevents your words from taking precedent over his word. One of my mentors, a saintly man now gone on to glory, used to tell me that whenever someone called me in a crisis and needed to see me right away, the best thing to do would be to put them off for a couple of weeks. That way when we eventually did get together, the person’s problem would likely have already resolved itself. Our time together could then be better spent giving thanks rather than giving advice.
Solomon concurs, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” I used to teach an occasional graduate school course in psychology and liked to employ a Socratic methodology of sorts, with its dialogical give and take, the only problem being that in my own eagerness to speak, my Socratic sometimes turned sarcastic. One time the topic of “anger” came up and I asked the class for a definition. A student responded with “mad” to which I quickly retorted, “Well that’s a no-brainer, it’s easy to throw out a synonym, but is that really a definition?” “Well how about this,” she replied, “anger is the feeling you get when your professor mocks and belittles your attempt to participate in front of the entire class.” Uh, yep, that would be anger.
“Listen and understand,” Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, “it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but it is what comes out of your mouth that defiles.” Watch your mouth and you’ll take the spiritual temperature of your soul. Speech serves as a reliable thermometer for what’s going on inside. But speech serves as a thermostat too. Your speech can also control your spiritual temperature. Proverbs declares that “Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from trouble.” Watch your mouth and you’ll gauge your soul. Watch your mouth and you’ll guard your soul.
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech.”