January 28, 2018: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Today’s passage from Proverbs comes from the opening section of the book. The first nine chapters are structed as a series of instructions from a parent to a child. As it is presented, this isn’t really a conversation between the youngster and the parent, not this is more of a lecture. A lecture on the right way to live. That’s not how any of us talk to our children, is it? Ryann has to remind me all that time that when I’m trying to discipline our kids I have a tendency to lapse into lecturing, to keep talking and talking as if I can somehow through the sheer force of verbal willpower I could get them to act a certain way. Well, the parent of proverbs seems to be giving the child a talkin-to. But, it’s not coming from a place of frustration or exhaustion, like my lectures to my kids. No, its coming from a place of patience and experience, from a place of wisdom. This is a set of conversations that the contain the wisdom of the community passed on through the ages which the elder is seeking to impart to the youngster.
The wise elder says “My child, keep your father’s commandment, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.” Though these truths are presented as coming from a parent, the teachings of proverbs could just as easily come from a wise mentor or coach, a beloved teacher or professor. Maybe a Sunday school teacher, or youth advisor, or a Scout leader. The insight of one generation handed down to the next is described as a lamp and a light to guide your feet along the path of wisdom.
All this talk of walking down paths with or without light sounds awfully fitting on this Scout Sunday. The rich language that parent uses creates and image in our head of wisdom guides you through the dark trails, keeps watch at night and welcomes you in the morning. It sounds an a lot like a campout to me.
Jesus’s own teaching from our gospel lesson takes the form of another similar proverb, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
This task of shaping the wisdom and knowledge of the next generation is a holy endeavor, a huge responsibility. Those who are wise lovingly give their wisdom away as a great gift which cannot be repaid. And yet, we also know quite well that not all relationships between young and old are shaped by such truth, love, and dignity. We know of story after story of abuse and neglect, of predatory behavior and horrific atrocities committed against children. This week alone our news has been filled with repulsive accounts of evil in our world: Parents in California keeping their 13 malnourished children chained into a world of horror, a team doctor abusing his position of trust and power to assault young gymnastics for decades. Such sinfulness and depravity are precisely the kind of darkness that Jesus is talking about, when he says those who walk in the darkness and have “no light in them.” While we trustingly listen to and learn from the wise teachings of elders like this parent in the book of Proverbs, we must confess and be convicted that not all such relationships are shaped by light and love. That is why true wisdom is so valuable, because it is so rare. In a world of darkness, we need the light of truth, the lamp of love to guide us in the right direction along the path of wisdom.
Over the years, I have been particularly shaped by a series of conversations with the wisest person that I know, my grandfather. We’ve talked thousands of times, and I’ve learned an awful lot from him, but there are five particular conversations that we have had which have shaped me into the person that I am today—or who I aspire to be.
When I was nine years old we were on vacation with my grandparents when I learned that we were going to be moving from Tuscaloosa to Mobile. I was distraught. That’s about the worst thing that a nine-year old can imagine—moving away from all my friends, from all I had ever known. And while I was soaking my pillow in a summer rainstorm of tears my grandfather walked into the room. He sat down on the bed and he told me the story of when his family had moved when he was a little boy. He told me about how sad he was to leave his friends and how nervous he was to go somewhere new. But then he told me how quickly he met and made new friends and how much fun they had together. He told me that it was ok to be sad, but that even though I didn’t know it yet, I was going to love my new home and new friends in Mobile. It’s wasn’t that deep, nothing profound, but he was talking to a nine year-old, and that’s just what I needed to hear then.
Proverbs says, “Bind [these words] upon your heart always; tie them around your neck.”
When I was 18 years-old, my grandfather and I had another one of those conversations. I was about to leave home and head 8 hours away to college in South Carolina. We were playing golf, and while standing on a tee box he said, “Buz, when you get there, to this new place, there will be a lot of temptations to do things and act in ways that you know aren’t right, but they will seem like the quickest may to make friends. I know it will be hard, but you’ve got to be comfortable being lonely for a while. Stay true to who you know you are and how you know you are supposed to act. If others around don’t include you, that’s ok. You’ll be lonely…at first. But if you can be comfortable in that loneliness for a while, you’ll meet people who want to be your friend for who you really are, you’ll form relationships that will last because they will be genuine and not fake or forced.”
I’ve thought back on those two conversations hundreds of times in my life. They are seared into the contours of my psyche, but there is something about them that I’d never noticed until this very week, while studying the book of Proverbs. The remarkable thing about those wise words to the young man heading to college was that they were almost the exact opposite of what he said when I was much younger. To the nine-year old he reassuringly said, “You’ll make new friends quickly.” To the 18-year-old he warned, “Don’t make friends too quickly.” Both times he was right. He knew what to say, but just as importantly, he knew when to say it. That’s the kind of wisdom that the book of Proverbs seeks to teach. Not just knowing the words of the wise, but discerning where the fit into life, learning in which context to apply them.
Proverbs says, “When you walk, they will lead you.”
When I was 22 years old I had finished college and was engaged to Ryann. A few weeks before our wedding, my grandfather and I were on that same golf course when he talked to me about marriage. He said, “Deep down, marriage is all about sharing. It seems obvious when you are in a house together that you share all of these things that you own, but what a lot of couples miss is that material objects are the easiest things to share. The best marriages happen when people share power, when they share trust, when they share failure. When they share who and how and why decisions get made.” He said that there were some couples who never learn to share those hard things and it rarely ends well.”
Proverbs says, “when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you.
When I was finishing my studies in seminary, preparing to become a pastor myself, my grandfather and I went to lunch and talked about some about his own experiences in ministry. I’ll never forget, in that conversation he said, “Buz, none of us are who we are. We are all becoming who we will be.” None of us are who we are. We are all becoming who we will be. In other words, we was saying, we are all works in progress. The best of us and the worst of us are always in transition. And yet we live in ways that become so fixated on isolated achievements or mistakes as if they define who we are and especially who other people are. Our world so easily gives up on people when they act a certain way or say a certain thing as if that this the sum total of their entire story, but all of our stories are still being written, and God is a God who authors beautiful stories of transformation, stories of redemption, stories of goodness that comes even out of evil, of light that shines, even in the darkness.
Proverbs says, “The commandment is a lamp and the teaching is a light.”
A little over four years ago, when I had been called to serve as the pastor of this church but in the weeks before I had actually begun my time with you, my grandfather and I talked over the phone about the church and about ministry. I’ll never forget what he said, “Always remember to focus on the basics of being a pastor.” He said, “Don’t get distracted by various movements and efforts for total change in the larger church. Those come and go every few years.” Now, you’ve got to know this wasn’t coming from some closed-minded or intolerant position with regard to the need for change in the world or in the church. My grandfather had been active in standing for civil rights in Alabama and Mississippi in times when it wasn’t safe to do so. He had worked hard on issues of justice and equality in the communities where he lived. In his later years of ministry his congregation was even kicked out of its local governing body because they dared to ordain a woman as a pastor. He has a heart for justice, but he did not take such stands because of some party platform or outside political agenda. No, such stances always grew out of the deep deep love that he had for the people in the churches that he served and the ways they were called to serve together. He said, “Don’t get distracted by those movements. You might agree with some and disagree with others, applaud their leaders or not, but remember that you call is to focus on the work of pastoral ministry in your church: preaching, teaching, pastoral care visits with your congregation.” He said he’d seem many pastors who got so focused on everything else that was going on in the larger church that they forgot about their primary charge to care for their congregation.
Jesus said, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of the world.”
Friends, I share these stories with you not for you to learn about or love my grandfather…though you’re certainly free to do so. No, I share them because they are for me critical points along the path of wisdom. They are lights and lamps that still guide me. And Proverbs invites us all to remember and share such moments in all of our lives. To remember the people and the words, the truth and the wisdom that shape us into who we are becoming. To remember and to cherish, to “Bind them upon your heart always; tie them around your neck” that we might walk in the light as we journey together from one generation to the next following the one who is the Light of the World.
To God alone be the glory.