Sunday, July 01, 2012

West Vancouver, July 1

Psalm 19
The law of the Lord is perfect, 
refreshing the soul.

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, 
making wise the simple.  
The precepts of the Lord are right, 
giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.

Life can be confusing for a newly-minted minister.

July 1st is the traditional day that the newly ordained and commissioned ministers begin their first charge, and so we lift up a prayer today for neophyte clergy, asking that mistakes be few and forgiveness ample.

Few will be as young as I was, although we have seen an increase in younger candidates. It seems the colleges discovered recruiting in the last few years, and as a result there are more new ministers of a tender age.

So imagine the confusion of begin told you have sudden, special tasks, even while becoming convinced that all are equal, clergy and lay, a priesthood of all believers. Baptism is one example, communion another. Some lay people are designated to do this, and they are a gift to the church. But generally, a couple of things are reserved for ministers.

So I’m a young man, it what now seems like some child-ordination program, and I wonder ‘if I splash someone in the pool, are they now baptized?’ Wouldn’t that be awesome! Swoosh, Christian! Splash, believer! What if I went swimming with some famous atheists, like Richard Dawkins? ‘Hey Richard, come here, okay, a little closer’ and splash! Gotcha!

Back to my prayer for neophyte clergy, I credit divine intervention of the most comprehensive and persistent kind that allowed me to survive those years. We were sent to the woods in those days for the express purpose of making mistakes in the places where we could do the least harm, or at least the places far enough away that word might not make it back.

So off I went, armed only with a reliable car, a roadmap, a toothbrush, and a Bible. One of my supervisors insisted that she spent her early years in ministry with only as much stuff as would fit in her Pinto. And while she made no claims as to the reliability of her Pinto, I know it had enough room for a roadmap, a toothbrush, and a Bible. And what more could you need, since:

The law of the Lord is perfect, 
refreshing the soul. 

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, 
making wise the simple.  

It’s an outrageous claim, really. Making wise the simple. The Law of the Lord, Torah, is shorthand for the Books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. And it is these five books that the Psalmist commends to us, the same five books that Jesus read and loved, the same five books that inspired the Psalms themselves.

We know the Bible can do so many things: it can instruct, delight, and inspire. It can open a world to us, it can explain the ways of God us, and it can set us on the right path. But make wise the simple? And what is wisdom anyway?

It seems researchers have been working on this very problem, trying to understand the nature of wisdom, who has it, and how much. They have looked across cultures and ages, and have made some headway. As they were attempting to narrow this question down, they made a list:

A willingness resolve conflict, to compromise.
A sense of the limit of your own knowledge.
And an appreciation that things may get worse before they get better.[1]

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I see a list that this, I immediately think of St. Paul. My loving partner, who has the onerous task of listening to me preach week by week might tell you that I frequently reach the same conclusion. As the person in the New Testament who always wins the Oscar for best supporting actor, Paul embodies all of these facets of wisdom.

A willingness to resolve conflict, to compromise? Paul said “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” To those under the law he was willing to live as one under the law. For those who were not, he made the same compromise. Most profoundly he said, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.” In a culture where weakness was despised, and power was the only real goal, Paul added his counter-cultural stamp to the words of Jesus. (1 Cor 9)

A sense of the limit of your own knowledge? Paul turned to poetry to make his point:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor 13)
And accepting that things may get worse before they get better? We turn to another poem by Paul: “We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5)

Now, the trivia buffs among you are already thinking along the lines of the late Lloyd Bentson, and saying to yourself: ‘I know the Apostle Paul, and you sir, are no Apostle Paul.‘ And you would be right. We can define wisdom, we can see it the heroes of the Bible, but can we replicate it here in the real world? Paul was schooled in the Bible, Paul had a personal encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus, and Paul was Paul. And we are not. So who are we?

Some would claim that we are little more than clever monkeys, with our bigger brains and our opposing thumbs and a will to overcome all the less-than-clever monkeys around us. And they might be right. A noted evolutionary biologist has said that you will never see two monkeys carrying a log together. Nor will you see one pull down a branch so another can pick fruit. They just can’t do it. They can do clever things, but they can’t overcome their monkey-ness when it comes gaining the fruits of cooperation.

Some would claim we are God’s crowning glory. Psalm 8 says “a little less than angels you made us, and crowned us with honour.” Seldom wanting to disagree with the Bible, but the author of Psalm 8 clearly hasn’t been reading the newspaper. We may be able to study wisdom, and find examples of wisdom in great books, but the practical application of wisdom? I’m just not seeing it. We may have angel-potential, but we seem far from the goal.

So we’re more than clever monkeys and far less than a little less than angels. In our in-betweenness we struggle to evolve beyond one and aspire for the other. In our in-betweenness we read Psalm 19 and we catch a glimpse of something more, and dwell between longing and hope. We can’t preach like Peter, and we can’t pray like Paul, but we can’t give up either.

Maybe the way forward is to look at Psalm 19 not in what it says but in what it does. [2] The law of the Lord refreshes the soul, gives joy to the heart, gives light to the eye, it endures forever, and yes, to makes the simple wise. When we work together to open the Bible, when we accept our potential as pre-angels, then we receive the refreshment and joy and light and endurance and wisdom that only scripture can provide. God transforms us through the Word, we cannot transform ourselves.

Looking back on my time in the woods, in what still seems like a child ordination program, I call to mind my first week in the saddle. The same week that the church first entrusted me with the care of three small congregations, the Cold War ended with the reunification of Germany, the world pondered a response to the invasion of Kuwait, and Ontario elected its first NDP government. I sat at my desk, with a pencil and a blank piece of paper, and thought ‘now what?’ What could I possibly say about the world-altering events unfolding around me, the needs of three congregations, or great truths of the Christian religion?

Then the words of my mentor came to mind, Douglas Patterson, and a conversation we had about preaching at funerals, and I realized that his wisdom applied anytime preachers approach the pulpit. He said “You read the 23rd Psalm, and the other passages of great comfort in a time of trouble, and what wisdom do you think you can possibly add through a sermon?” For in the end:

[Only] the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, 
    making wise the simple.