It was Helen Keller who said it: “I have walked with people whose ears are full of sound but who hear nothing: neither the run of birdsong, nor the breaking of waves, nor the noise of city streets, nor the quiet pounding of the heart. It were far better,” she continued, “to sail forever in the night of deafness with sense, and feeling, and mind, than to be content with the mere act of hearing. The only soundless dark is the night of darkness in ignorance and insensibility.”
That’s a powerful statement, don’t you think? Call it “non-selective hearing,” the sort of impairment that you might find in those who “hear it all,” yet are unable or unwilling to be discerning about the importance and value of what they hear; people who hear everything at once but listen to nothing at all. They always seem to be moving from one noise to the next, these people: never, ever pausing to focus their attention on the one sound that might matter or make a difference in their lives; rather, to paraphrase Shakespeare, they waste their time and energy on “sound and fury which signifies nothing.” That’s who Helen Keller was talking about when she spoke of those who have “ears full of sound but who hear nothing.”
Actually, a great analogy for this would be the experience of walking along the midway at any one of the state or county fairs we have here in New Hampshire. Now, if you’ve ever “been to Fair,” as we say “up in the County,” then you know that the fair is a lot of things, but mostly what it is is noisy! Walk down the midway, and you’ll hear just about every kind of sound imaginable: first of all, there’s every kind of music you can think of playing all around you; there’s the mechanical clanking of the rides, which itself is nearly drowned out by the screams of riders as they fly through the air above you; and then of course, you’ve got all the bells, buzzers and sirens of carnival games (not to mention the incessant calls of the carnival barkers who would cheerfully impugn your character all for the sake of having you slap down another dollar to try and win that stuffed animal!). There’s laughter and conversation, kids calling out to one another; these days you’ve got the ubiquitous beeps and buzzes of cell phones; and, lest we forget, underneath it all is the constant sizzle of hot grease deep-frying dough boys and onion rings!
It’s next to impossible to be a non-participant at the fair, because the whole time you’re there there’s a barrage of sound coming from every direction; all these noises calling for your attention and demanding your patronage. And yet, for all the noise, ultimately it’s really hard to hear anything at all! I remember a few years back when we were still in Maine, Lisa and I were at the Fryeburg Fair and we’re walking down the midway amidst all this chaos of sound when suddenly I’m aware of an announcement coming from the loudspeaker. “If there is a Joe or Mary Reynolds on the fairgrounds,” a voice intoned, “please come to the registration booth.” Now, understand that you could barely make out what was being said, it was all so noisy, but there it was; and honestly, I wouldn’t have thought much about it, except that a few minutes later the announcement came again, this time slightly revised: “If there is a Joe or Mary Reynolds on the fairgrounds, please come to the registration booth: we have your little boy with us who got lost!”
I remember looking around and realizing that there were hundreds of people milling around who hadn’t heard or cared about that announcement; but somewhere in the crowd, there were two frantic parents for whom that one voice over the loudspeaker, this one solitary voice amidst the cacophony of the fair meant everything in the world. I could only hope that they were listening; that their ears were tuned to what was being said to them at that moment.
It’s actually kind of a microcosm of life – and also of faith (!) – in that amidst the noise of daily life, there are sounds and voices that carry great value and importance for us: words of conscience and virtue; the convicted speech that arises from personal morality and an ethical stance; the simple voice of compassion, justice and basic human decency toward all. Friends, this is the sound of wisdom, and within it the voice of God. But the thing is that in order for that voice to get through to us in the clamor of all the noise that barrages us in this life, we’ve got to be listening for it: we need, as the author of Proverbs puts it, to be “making [our] ear attentive to wisdom and inclining [our] heart to understanding;” or as The Message aptly translates it, to “tune [our] ears to the World of Wisdom,” and to set our hearts to a “life of Understanding.”
To understand the Book of Proverbs, it’s helpful for us to remember that the people of the Old Testament were a diverse and often factious people, particularly in terms of religion; but there was one commonality of “faith” wherever you went, and that was in the important place of wisdom in one’s life. It was wholly understood on just about every level of society that with true wisdom comes not only knowledge and well-being, but also power; and yes, power in terms of military strength, wealth, and even eternity. And central to the faith of Israel was also this clear understanding that true wisdom has its source in God and God alone.
In fact, the Hebrew understanding was that God is wisdom, and that’s the conviction that lies at the heart of our text for this morning. We’re told in these verses from the second chapter that if our ears and hearts are truly attuned to wisdom – if we’re seeking it “like silver and search[ing] for it as for hidden treasures” – then we will know and understand “the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.” This God who gives wisdom and who is wisdom “is a shield to those who walk blamelessly;” he preserves “the way of his faithful ones,” and sets before us “every good path,” helping us to understand what’s good, what’s fair and what’s right; and also how to live that way, because in scripture, you see, wisdom is inextricably bound to action; to put it another way, to be wise is not simply to think good thoughts; it is also, and primarily, to actually live by them.
So, given that true wisdom has its source in God, what we have in the Book of Proverbs is, in fact, a collection of “Godly” wisdom: bits of knowledge and understanding that is set forth to make all of life – both the good and the bad of it – something to be cherished, celebrated and lived with joy and purpose. But it’s wisdom that needs to be heard and received if it is to have any value: it can only be heard and received if we truly listen for it with attentive, open ears and a whole heart.
And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? Because it’s noisy world out there, friends; and quite honestly, most of us are all-too easily distracted from what we ought to be hearing!
Pastor and writer Gary Sims, in a commentary on this particular passage, asks if in fact we even listen for the voice of wisdom as we go about our day to day lives. “Does Wisdom cry out to you in the avenues and byways of your life?” he asks. “Can you hear the Holy Spirit calling to you through all din of competing noises? Or does the television blare its ‘buy-me messages’ incessantly in your home? Is your car radio constantly pounding out a diatribe of news, opinions, and secular music? Are you surrounded with the clamor of conversation and dialogue?” In order to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance through all the noises of life, he concludes, it is of crucial importance “to schedule quiet time in your life so that you are able to hear God’s wisdom and guidance.”
That’s good advice, there; it’s difficult, however, because the truth is that we’ve become so accustomed to all this noise around us that we’re uncomfortable when it’s not there! Even in worship, where the idea is precisely to be “away” from the world and in the quiet with God, it can be difficult: a number of years ago I was invited to take part in a service of worship in the Quaker tradition – a “Quaker’s Meeting,” as it were – and you know the old children’s rhyme “Quaker’s Meeting has begun, no more laughing, no more fun?” Well, with all due respect to the Society of Friends, that pretty much describes the worship experience!
A Quaker service happens almost entirely in silence: only for a couple of prayers at the beginning and the end, a scripture reading or two, or when one feels strongly moved by the Holy Spirit does anyone – and usually not a pastor, by the way – speak aloud about anything! So I’m in the seminary chapel for this Quaker service, and for 50 minutes, we all sat in absolute silence on very hard pews; and friends, just let me way it weren’t easy!
Understand, to not “have” to speak was OK; but I wanted to listen: to scripture being explored, to preaching, to music of faith; but all there was in this service is what scripture refers to as this “crushing, enveloping silence,” only broken by the occasional cough and creek of the floor boards below us. At first, it felt awkward and empty and honestly, quite meaningless: until I realized that the whole point of this silence was to get me out of the noise outside of me long enough to listen to the spirit’s voice inside. And that’s when I started to really pay attention; to begin to truly make my ears attentive to true wisdom, and to open my heart for an understanding of God’s will and purpose for my own life.
And the truth is, friends? I could never be a Quaker! I love the music and the joy and the celebration that goes with our Christian worship way too much for that; but I’ll tell you this: I know there are times in my life, as I know there are in yours, when silence is the place where we get a true sense of our Lord’s voice of wisdom.
The point is that we need to listen… really listen. To tune our ears and our hearts to what the loving and living God, in mercy and with love, has to say to us; to quiet ourselves both in times of work and of worship, and to truly cry out for the insight that we need for the way; for truly, the wisdom that will come into our hearts for the effort, and the knowledge we will receive will truly “be pleasant to [our] soul.”
The truth, you know, is that however busy and attractive the noise on life’s midway can be, ultimately it’s fleeting in nature and the carnival will inevitably move on. That’s the problem with the world’s noise; once you’ve heard it, it’s already gone and immediately you’re listening for the next thing, only to find that fades away as well. But the voice of God, that never fades. It remains; and the glory of this is that even now, even right here in this sanctuary, God is still speaking: slowly, steadily, deliberately and clearly, so that you and I will hear; so that with our ears tuned to wisdom, we might get what we need to hear for the facing of this hour and the living of these days.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry