The street preacher yelled at us, “you’re going to hell! You’ll burn in the lake of fire!”
It was February, 2019, and we were emerging from the convention center where General Conference was being held. This was the General Conference that was supposed to settle the division over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church. That day had been particularly difficult and heartbreaking. Everyone, regardless of position on the issue, walked out the doors and into the street with a heavy heart.
Only to be accosted by this street preacher. Actually, he’d been there days before and now was joined by a whole gaggle of folks, holding protest signs, declaring in language that I dare not repeat from the pulpit that we were all doomed.
I must say, it’s amazing what people think it’s okay to say if they say it in the name of Jesus.
They were upset not because the church might vote to be more inclusive. They were upset not because we might not become more inclusive. They were upset because we were even having the conversation. They were upset because we were even giving voice to two sides of an argument.
As I read this week’s scripture, I couldn’t help but think of this memory, seared in my brain. In the reading from Proverbs for today, Woman Wisdom is standing in heavily-trafficked public places, yelling to anyone who would listen. She wants people to hear her, to understand her, and to follow her ways. If they don’t, she says, disaster and calamity will befall them. So they’d better hear her.
Not unlike the street preachers. Based on what they say, disaster and calamity will befall the United Methodist Church unless we heed their calls to not even have the conversation. And like the people passing Woman Wisdom by, my friend and I tuned out the street preachers, ducked our heads, and walked a little faster.
Most of us would not give any credence to the words of street preachers. But here in our scripture is a street preacher named Woman Wisdom. And we’d better listen.
Which begs the question: how do we determine to whom we should listen? How do we discern the voice of wisdom through all the different voices we encounter?
Let’s hear our scripture for today. It’s Woman Wisdom’s introduction in the book of Proverbs. You may recall last week I noted that wisdom is personified as a woman in the book of Proverbs, one elevated above all men, one whom Proverbs says was with God at creation. Let’s hear her introduction in chapter 1, beginning with verse 20.
Disaster and calamity will befall those who do not heed the words of Woman Wisdom. And yet, most pass her by like we would do for any street preacher. She declares that wisdom begins with the fear of the LORD and the love of knowledge in verse 29. She gives the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, because certainly God wants us to be wise, for we must know the wisdom of God to walk in God’s ways.
And yet, just about everyone it seems walks by, tuning her out.
It struck me as I read that this is not the still, small, voice of God that’s so famous in scripture. Quite often across the Bible and in my own experience, God’s voice is not the loudest, not the one shouting in the marketplace of ideas and conversation. It is in fact that still, small, voice, that requires stillness on our part to hear.
But that’s not the case here. Woman Wisdom speaks for God; this is God’s wisdom, and unlike God’s voice, she’s probably the loudest person on the street. She’s screaming for people to pay attention to her. But hardly anyone will. She proclaims disaster for those who do not heed her words. She says that they’ll be left to their own devices and then, when panic strikes them, she will mock them.
Not unlike street preachers we’ve all heard at one time or another.
We’ve encountered them walking into or out of sporting events. We’ve seen them at parades or patriotic gatherings. We’ve seen them at concerts. It seems at any large public event, there’s at least one street preacher yelling about the coming demise of the world, our own destruction that will visit upon us because of our sins, and that we must turn back to God.
And we, like the people passing Woman Wisdom by, ignore them, moving on with our lives.
Now of course we would not say that these street preachers convey the wisdom of God, especially when they’re grotesque. The most famous of street preachers currently are Westboro Baptist Church; the group that pickets the funerals of soldiers coming back from war, condemning them and their families. They do so because they say God has allowed the death of those soldiers because of the sins of America. It’s an awful spectacle and not at all Christian.
So if we’d say they do not convey wisdom, but here we have an example of a street preacher from scripture who definitely does convey wisdom, how do we discern what is wisdom and what is not?
I think, at the risk of overstating things, that’s the central question for our time: how do we discern what is wisdom and what is not?
I’m currently reading a book interviewing scholars and public figures on the genes of America. The author says that there are thirteen genes that have made America what it is; the genius of our system of government and our culture. In one of the interviews, a history professor says that we’re facing an epistemological crisis. That’s fancy academic-talk for saying that we don’t know how to know things anymore.
Take the vaccine for COVID for example. The minute it came out, it was politicized. Lines formed in the usual places, with liberals by and large embracing it and conservatives by and large not embracing it. Information spilled out from both camps, purporting the safety or danger of receiving the vaccine. How do we discern what is wise when it comes to the vaccine?
That’s just one example of so many, illustrating how quickly the issues that face us become politicized with right and left camps forming. Then, both camps throw out a ton of information. It can feel as though it’s flying at us from all directions. Certainly, it is very difficult to know things. How do we come to know what we should know? In other words, how do we find the truth?
Here’s another example. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was an absolute disgrace. Almost all Americans agree on that point. It was this generation’s withdrawal from Saigon moment except this time things seemed worse.
Now, who’s fault is it? Who should be held to blame? That’s where the typical partisan division lies, with clear camps on the right and left.
Republicans say it’s President Biden and his administration’s inept preparation and handling of the situation. Democrats say it’s a series of successive failures of previous administrations, captstoned by the previous administration’s peace deal with the Taliban that left out the Afghan government. They say Biden’s hands were tied.
This is typical of our current moment as a country. How do we decide what is true? Where is wisdom in who should be held accountable for the Afghanistan disgrace?
Most likely, our answer to that question lies with whichever side of the political spectrum we tend to support. Sometimes, that’s just because we sympathize more with Republicans, for example, and want to see them successful.
Sometimes, though, that’s because of the echo chambers in which we live.
If we watch Fox News or Newsmax, we see one perspective. If our friends tend to share our political convictions, that perspective from the news is reinforced by what we see on social media. If our in-person friends tend to share our perspectives, our conversations further reinforce what we’ve gathered online and from the news.
We share what we read on foxnews.com, we share what we saw on social media, and we talk about what we heard from those conversations. That’s living in an echo chamber. It’s a cycle of reinforcement but it’s reinforcement of the same information, the same perspective. It’s an echo chamber because it’s where only one perspective, one side of the issue, gets heard. But we don’t realize it because we’ve read about it and discussed it quite a bit, and so we feel like we’ve gained the right perspective.
In the case of Afghanistan, the echo chamber cycle of reinforcement causes us to hear over and over again how it’s Biden’s fault, how the ineptness of his administration is to blame. We thus become more and more convinced that this is the correct perspective without ever having really given the other side a fair hearing in our minds.
Consider this: let’s say Republicans had kept the White House in 2020. Now let’s say that the withdrawal from Afghanistan went the exact same way it did for Biden. What would happen?
One side would declare that it was the president’s fault, that the ineptness of his character and administration are to blame for the disgrace. The other side would say that it was the fault of previous administrations making mistakes, tying the hands of the president.
But this time, the side declaring it was the president’s fault would be the Democrats. And the side declaring it was the fault of previous administrations would be the Republicans. And both sides would buy into those arguments because of the echo chambers in which we live and move and have our being.
It’s all so predictable. We just keep repeating the same pattern over and over again as a country. And there’s no wisdom to be found in it. Ultimately, we know that.
How do we know the truth? How do we find where wisdom lies in who’s to blame for Afghanistan? How do we find wisdom when it comes to whether the vaccine is right for us? How do we find wisdom or any issue we face?
We as a nation and we gathered here today in person and online do indeed face an epistemological crisis. We don’t know how to know things anymore.
Where is wisdom? How do we find her?
She’s on the street, yelling at us. That is of no doubt. Her voice is loud and raucous. She holds nothing back. She tells us that this pattern of defaulting to partisan positions is destroying us. She tells us that our willingness to live in echo chambers is harming us. And we will be left to our own devices, our own destruction, where she will mock us.
Unless we listen.
How do we listen to her?
When I arrived in Eastman, I brought with me liberal sensibilities. That should come as no surprise to anyone. I tended to see the world through that prism. My liberal-minded friends asked me how I could survive in a place like Eastman, where it was assumed that everyone was very conservative. They worried for me and figured I would only be here for a short time and would be uncomfortable while I was here. And my conservative friends hoped I’d have a massive conversion.
Here I stand, in my fifth year, a long tenure at a church of this size for a Methodist pastor, quite content and happy to be here. The partisan lines that we draw did not run me off. In fact, they’ve shaped me. I’m not a conservative but I am changed and for the better.
Living here, I have encountered perspectives very different from my own, but perspectives that I could not simply dismiss the way I might have if I still lived in suburban Atlanta. That’s because people I respect very much, people I think very highly of, hold those perspectives and opinions. I could not dismiss the perspective because to dismiss it is now to dismiss the person who holds it.
No, I had to wrestle with it, consider it, research it. Sometimes, my mind has been changed. Other times, it has not. But in all circumstances, I understand things better as a result of being wiling to do the uncomfortable work of researching and wrestling with a belief not my own.
In addition, I prayed through it. I asked God where wisdom was. I did my best to remain humble, saying that while I believed a particular thing, I tried my best to hold that belief loosely enough to be changed by what I learned and encountered. And sometimes, God led me to a new understanding. But even if that belief was reinforced instead, either way I have found myself wiser for that wrestling and prayer.
There are moments when I read the news that I want to say, but you haven’t met my church! You haven’t been to Eastman! When an article infers that the south is a heartless place full of racism and no help for their fellow citizen, I want to show them what we do here. When a commentator says that the south is backwards and they just don’t get it, I want to say they haven’t met the common and yet profound wisdom that I have known from living and being among you.
That does not make us perfect by any means. And I have not had some massive conversion. What has happened is just this: I have grown in the fear of the LORD and in knowledge because of living where my perspective is not the norm; because of having to live that uncomfortable existence.
And at times it has been very uncomfortable. Most people who don’t know me well but know what I do for a living assume that I believe what they believe. I become this living, breathing, Rorschach test. They start saying things that I in no way believe and I struggle uncomfortably to figure out how to respond. I don’t want to insult them nor do I want to offend them nor do I want conflict. So I have to find a way to affirm who they are as a fellow human being without compromising on my beliefs. Relationship over rules, as you’ve heard me say many times. Yet, I’m not always successful. It’s very uncomfortable.
But it’s that discomfort that has helped me hear Woman Wisdom a bit better as she yells over all the noise and information that’s thrown at us on a regular basis.
And that, I think, is just the point Proverbs wants us to hear. Proverbs, and Woman Wisdom in particular, want to tell us something of how to find wisdom even when there’s so much yelling at us, so much noise, so many other voices in our lives.
Proverbs holds the key to resolving our epistemological crisis. Proverbs tells us how to know things again.
To hear Woman Wisdom, we must do two things. First, we must choose discomfort in learning. Second, we must be humble in our beliefs.
Discomfort in learning comes from choosing to learn about things that are the opposite of what we believe, even if that means learning about something that makes us upset, angry, or fearful. The vaccines I mentioned are a great example. We can live and move and have our being in the midst of an echo chamber that just reinforces what we already think: that the vaccine shouldn’t be trusted. Choosing discomfort is to honestly find out why some people believe it’s safe. And that’s not just going to our token liberal friend and asking her or him why they think that. It’s going to the source: our local doctor, medical journals, reputable medical websites, and the like. With my doctor of ministry degree, I’m more of a doctor than most politicians. That doesn’t make me any more of an authority on the vaccine than them. So don’t listen to them; talk to medical doctors you know and respect instead. Our minds might not be changed, but we’ll have a better understanding of why we think what we do and we’ll be changed for the better because of it. That’s what it means to pursue wisdom.
Just the other day, someone I very much respect said that they thought ivermectin was an effective treatment against COVID-19. I found that perspective repugnant. But I could not simply dismiss it because I respected that person too much. So I went and researched how someone could come to that opinion. My opinion is no different after that research but I can understand how someone could come to that opinion. I respect this person for their own assessment because they, too, have considered both sides and come to a different conclusion than me.
And that’s just the point. When we examine the other side, when we truly seek to learn how someone can believe and think what they do, it becomes very difficult to hate. The promise of this scripture is peace; that those who know wisdom will live in peace. When we understand how someone thinks and how they arrived at their conclusions, even if we don’t agree with them, even if we still think the perspective or belief is repugnant, we can live at peace with them and with ourselves because we can mutually respect one another.
But it requires discomfort. It requires going where we do not want to go to learn things we do not want to learn. And yet, that’s how we hear wisdom speak. To go where we do not want to go to learn what we do not want to learn. We must choose to be uncomfortable.
Some of the best reading I’ve done around religion is from atheists. Especially those atheists who think religious practice is great but for the self-help benefits. I do not agree with them. In fact, I strenuously disagree with them because to use religion just for self-help is to use God, which offends me. But because I have been willing to read them, I have heard wisdom with a bit more clarity and come to understand spiritual discipline more deeply. I have grown in knowledge.
Hear Woman Wisdom when she says that the people have lost their way and disaster will visit them because, in verse 29, “they hated knowledge.” Thus the first part of what we must do to hear Woman Wisdom: we must love knowledge, choosing the discomfort of learning about things that are very different from what we already believe.
Now, to only learn about the things we don’t believe by itself is more like opposition research than anything else. We must couple that with the next thing Woman Wisdom says in verse 29, “the fear of the LORD.”
Of course fear in this case means respect, a healthy respect that comes from knowing that we are not God, not even close. A healthy respect that comes from confessing that all wisdom ultimately comes from God and we cannot be wise without God. There’s no ability to truly know things, there’s no ability to hear Woman Wisdom above all the hubbub, without that healthy respect for God.
And in this case, that healthy respect comes through humility; humbly accepting that all we hold dear and all we believe must be held loosely enough to be changed.
So much argumentation, so much strife, so much discord, comes from the fact that people on both sides believe they already know the answer and they must convince the other side how right they are. Even if the issue has nothing to do with religion, this attitude is classic self-righteousness. And our echo chambers reinforce that self-righteousness. We learn about, say, critical race theory. We cannot believe something like that would be taught in our schools. We believe that most people already regard others as equals and to dredge up the past is to invite more violence and scorn. Then we talk with others and we say, “can you believe it?” Then we read people who write and say in their eloquent words, “can you believe it?” Then we really can’t believe it and we get upset and angry. Then we keep talking about it, reinforcing our anger and rejecting any other side. We’re living in an echo chamber about critical race theory.
But we’ve already shown that, to be wise, we must choose the discomfort of exiting our echo chambers. We must learn about the other side. That would mean studying critical race theory. It would also mean not being afraid of it. Either learning about it will reinforce what we already believe by helping us clarify our understandings and arguments or it will change our minds. Either way, we become wiser.
And that’s what it means to hold our beliefs loosely enough to be changed by what we learn and encounter. There is truth. There is a correct answer. It rests with God. And to hear it, to understand it, to come and find it, requires that we hold our beliefs loosely enough for them to be shaped and molded or even outright changed. It requires going where we do not want to go to learn what we do not want to learn, trusting that God will use that discomfort to help us hear wisdom speak in our lives.
To have that kind of humility requires prayer; communion with God through the act of praying. Constant communion with God reminds us that we don’t have all the answers nor are we supposed to. It helps keep us humble; humble enough to be shaped and molded by what we learn and experience, even if it makes us very uncomfortable. Prayer teaches us that healthy respect of God and to recognize our place in the world.
And above all, prayer is the best tool to help us hear Woman Wisdom.
The information that’s constantly thrown at us will keep growing. We live and move and have our being in this Information Age where there is too much information. The challenge of hearing Woman Wisdom’s call over all of that noise will only grow. As Christians, we must rise to the challenge to hear Woman Wisdom’s voice over all the competing voices.
And we rise to that challenge through the fear of the LORD and the love of knowledge. We rise to that challenge by being humble, holding our beliefs loosely, and choosing the discomfort of learning beyond what we already believe.
For only God can resolve our epistemological crisis. Only God can teach us how to know what we are supposed to know.
First, by praying. Prayer teaches and reinforces respect of God and humility. And in the stillness, we’re able to tune out all the competing voices and noises to hear Woman Wisdom calling to us. Quite often, as Christians, Woman Wisdom’s voice in our souls goes by another name: the Holy Spirit; a constant presence, an ever present voice, always with a word of wisdom for our lives.
Second, by holding our beliefs loosely. That’s a tough thing to do. We all have those beliefs that we cherish. But we must be willing to hold them loosely enough to be changed. That’s what fear of the LORD demands; humility to believe that we don’t have all the answers and are in constant need of shaping and molding to discover wisdom itself.
Third, by choosing discomfort. We must be willing to go and learn about the things with which we disagree; to go where we do not want to go to learn what we do not want to learn. We must be willing to know people, love people, honor people, with whom we vehemently disagree. We must have several of those relationships. It’s hard to hate an idea when we love someone who holds it. It’s hard to be angry and full of rage when we cherish someone who believes the thing that makes us rage.
The fear of the LORD and the love of knowledge are the beginning of wisdom.
This morning, can you hear her calling? Do you hear Woman Wisdom in your life? Or are you caught in an echo chamber?
Get still. Pray. Be humble. Be uncomfortable. Be wise.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.