Like most parents of young children, I suppose, when our kids were in school Lisa and I did our share of volunteering. Actually, to be honest, Lisa did far more of that than I did; I always kind of felt that since in everything they ever did at church their Dad was constantly underfoot, they didn’t need me around all the time at school! That said, however, I did my time: I did career day (which was always interesting!); I brought my guitar into a whole lot of classrooms and once, thanks to a small piece of political rabble-rousing on the part of my wife, I even got to join a local rabbi to do a middle school program on the meaning of Christmas and Hanukkah!
There was one thing, however, that I steadfastly refused to do; and that’s when my oldest son Jake was playing Little League and I was approached about being an umpire! First of all, I will be the first to admit that though I love baseball, particularly when it’s played by kids, I definitely do not have the skill-set be an umpire; but aside from that, and more to the point, I would have been the world’s worst umpire because I would be way too soft on those kids! “Strike three? Oh, that’s alright, honey, you go ahead and take another swing!” “Four strikes? I think it’s time for a do-over!” “Out? Oh, I don’t think so… he tried so hard, and look, he’s upset now! Why don’t we just go with ‘safe’ this once, and next time, it’ll be an ‘out,’ I promise!”
Put me behind home plate, and that’d be how it would go, I know it! And I also know that not only would this most certainly raise the ire of the coaches, the parents and at least some of the players, but also that by taking that kind of an attitude, those kids would never learn the fundamentals of the game, they’d never come to understand sportsmanship and how to be a good loser, and ultimately they would be deprived of the joy and satisfaction that comes in playing the game! You see, it’s one thing to enjoy reaping the rewards of what you do; but the thing is, those rewards almost always come at the cost of hard work and of discipline. You’re going to strike out as many times as you get a hit – usually a lot more (!) – but that’s just the way the game of baseball is played, and especially when you’re a kid in Little League, that’s how you learn! And that’s not only true for baseball, football or any other sport or activity you can name, that’s also true when it comes to life itself.
Well, this morning we return to the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: which, as we’ve said before, is a collection of Godly Wisdom attributed to King Solomon but truly speaking with the voice of God. And as illustrated by our text today, it also takes on something of a parental tone; that is, this admonition to a life of wisdom is spoken in much the same way that a father or mother would speak to their children. “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let you heart keep my commandments… do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you… trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” Indeed, in this passage, and throughout Proverbs, there’s this strong sense that “these lessons that I’m teaching you are important; so you’d better be listening and pay attention!” Because if you do, says this parent to his child – if you heed God’s wisdom and “in all your ways acknowledge him” – the rewards will be great.
And he’s not kidding – did you hear those rewards as Lisa read them a few moments ago? A long and prosperous life… “favor and good repute” with God and with other people… a straight and smooth pathway through life… “healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body…” and, of course (and I love this verse), “your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” Health, wealth, a life lived with ease… it all can be yours if only you will “trust in the LORD with all your heart… [and] honor the LORD with your substance.”
Easy, right? Talk about your “prosperity gospel!” I mean, why would anyone choose foolishness over wisdom if this is what you get from a life of wisdom? And yet… I find it very interesting that at the end of this long list of blessing that are the rewards of wisdom and faith, suddenly and quite abruptly this parent says this to his child (and for this, I want to go to The Message translation): “But don’t… resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under his loving correction. It’s the child he loves that God corrects; a father’s delight is behind all this.”
Perhaps all these rewards are not as easily won as it appears… perhaps this business of trusting God in all things is not an automatic, but requires earnest and continuing effort on our parts. Maybe a life of wisdom – Godly wisdom, most especially – requires more than just hearing, but also doing; it needs for us to be moved, and shaped, and influenced by a loving, nurturing God.
That’s significant, friends; in fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the teaching of the whole Book of Proverbs in a nutshell. C. S. Lewis, in a book entitled The Abolition of Man, was writing about the difference between “ancient wisdom” and what passes for wisdom in our own time. “For the wise [ones] of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.” Today, Lewis went on, “the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.” To put this another way, so much of what we refer to today as “self-help” comes down to the effort of trying to change the world around us, so that it will fit into what our souls want or what we think they need. And that’s fine to a point; but we all know that only goes far because the world and its culture does not shift in a way that’s going to leave us healthy, wealthy and well-rested! What we have in Proverbs, however, is different: these aren’t teachings of how we’re to change the world out there; it’s all about changing what’s in here; changing us so that our souls, our Godly lives match the reality around us.
That’s the challenge, friends; to incorporate these new habits into our lives and living so that, over time, we do become wise and live, as The Message puts it, “a long life lived full and well.” But that’s where the discipline of it comes in as well. By the way, important to note that when the Bible speaks here of “the LORD’s discipline,” we’re not talking about punishment; this is not to be thought of God’s penalty for bad behavior. Rather, the original Hebrew of this word “discipline” actually translates as “pain for the person,” or “pain for their sake.” In other words, it’s adversity, and it’s difficult and sometimes it hurts but it’s there for our growing; it’s there to teach us wisdom.
I mean, ultimately, that’s the thing about being a parent, isn’t it? No mother or father wants their child to suffer; you never want to see them go through any of horrible stuff that can happen in life, and you certainly don’t want them to start crying or get mad at you! But then there comes a point, maybe during the “terrible twos,” or during the dreaded teenage years, when you think, “Fine. Let ‘em be mad! This is how they’ll learn!” And does there not also often come a time in every parent’s life when you know that your son or your daughter has to go through what they’re going through if they are going to learn and grow and become the mature and fulfilled adult you know they were always meant to be?
I think that most of us know this intrinsically, but it’s sometimes hard to accept as a reality: love is not always about saying yes, any more than learning to play baseball is about never being allowed to strike out. Love given and taught is actually rarely about choosing or accepting the easier pathway; and it’s certainly not about blessing without accountability. And that’s why as wonderful and as beautiful as it is for any of us to say, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” the reality of trying to actually incorporate that into our lives can be difficult; and why, as we stumble along in the learning process, we might face some adversity and suffering along the way. But that doesn’t mean we should stop: you know that famous comic book edict that “with great power comes great responsibility?” (Extra points if you know where that comes from!) Well, in this instance, we can say that with great wisdom also comes great responsibility; but also, if we stay with it – if we don’t lose sight of what God has to teach us and not “let loyalty and faithfulness forsake [us],” then with great wisdom will also come those great rewards.
So does this translate to everyday life? Well, that’s part and parcel of 31 chapters of Proverbs, and we heard a small part of it today: to “never walk away from someone who deserves help;” to not be trying to take advantage of someone when they’ve trusted you; to never “walk around with a chip on your shoulder, always spoiling for a fight.” And never… ever be a bully, “because GOD can’t stand twisted souls.” And it goes on and on from there; truly – and didn’t you love this verse (!) – “wise living gets reward with honor; stupid living gets the booby prize.”
It’s not easy; but then, I don’t think that Solomon (or God) ever thought that it would be. The fact is, and I count myself among those of whom I’m speaking here, most of us are more adept that foolishness than wisdom; far better at leaning on our own understandings of things than to rely on God! But the good news is that with each new day there is also a new opportunity to act and to live with wisdom; and that in that effort, we are never alone, but in the company and with the loving encouragement of our loving parent who is our God! For you see, not only do we need this path to wisdom to gain the rewards of a long life lived full and well, we also need someone to walk that pathway with us. We need a God who will guide us; who will correct us along the way; and who will hold us accountable when we insist on going our own way despite all of his best efforts! We need a God of justice and of mercy; who will discipline for the sake of our growth, but who will never, ever write us off when we fail in the attempt.
That alone is more than enough to keep us true along the journey that awaits us in this life.
So for the great wisdom he shares with us and the infinite love he gives to us…
…let our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry