“Rhythm of Wisdom”
August 16, 2015
Even though my brain and heart are still in deep summer mode, a walk around the corner to Shenkman or Amsterdam Hall, with “Welcome Home” banners already up, lets me know that the school year is fast upon us now. It’s still weeks before classes begin, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t getting ready all over Foggy Bottom.
As we get ready at our house, we’ve begun receiving school system emails with calendars and all that kind of thing, but this week we also received the report of Arlington County’s improvement on the SOLs, or Standards of Learning evaluation tests. I am excited my kids will be in what are considered good schools, and education has never been optional in our family, but I’ve also remembered the strong emphasis this D.C. environment places on education.
It’s not a bad thing. But I’ve grown wary and weary of the need for constant testing, and my children are not even in high school. I’ve grown skeptical of the value associated with knowledge in our culture, of the gaps our education system still creates between the haves and the have-nots, no matter how many charter schools we create, no matter how we try to increase access to a good education. I get angry that degrees, particularly from certain institutions, give some a feeling of superiority over others, rather than instill a call to make the world a better place. And I worry about the expense incurred, the financial and personal price many pay, and continue to pay, long after they have acquired those degrees. I’m sad when I see bright young people, going to college wanting to give something back, graduating only wanting a job, mostly so they won’t be $200K in debt.
This issue is not isolated from faith, but faith changes the terms. The bible says very little about knowledge, or degrees, or education for education’s sake. The bible talks about wisdom, about a kind of learning in a particular direction, about education for life: making good decisions, being faithful. Those who live in God’s way are those who have good understanding. Wisdom comes from living in a faithful community, one that understands God’s graciousness and mercy, and tries to live in the same way God does. The Hebrew scriptures use this phrase “the fear of the Lord” to describe the beginning of wisdom, and it doesn’t mean be mortally afraid of God, but to understand God’s power. You need a little fear, the same way you don’t want to go in the ocean, or turn on a stove, or get behind the wheel of a car (none of which are bad in and of themselves) – you don’t want to do these things without a little fear. Just as you grow in wisdom as you learn to navigate the sea, or cook on a stove, or drive a car, you grow in wisdom as you live recognizing the power of God, doing what God is doing in God’s own self. The fear is not fear of a bully, but of the One who is most wonderful and powerful, whom we are not meant to control, but with whom we are meant to live in relationship, acting with God’s own grace and mercy, feeding others, practicing goodness and justice.
The writer of Ephesians says something slightly different about wisdom. He has invited those who have gathered to try to figure out what it means to walk in the light, and not in the darkness. He knows the danger of foolish actions, and he warns them to be careful – not so much about what they know, but about how they live. And he doesn’t give them a psalm to memorize, as a chore. The author of Ephesians wants Christians to get together and sing! There is no test, no special training, no student loan required.
When talking about wisdom, or avoiding being foolish, the advice is essentially “Don’t get drunk; be filled with the Spirit. Sing to God; make music.” That’s how you learn to live in that relationship with God.
I think God is smiling that Bob McDonald happens to be our liturgist on the Sunday of this lectionary passage. I know several of you have ended up here at Western because of the choir, because of Tom. Others of you are very musical in other ways, can appreciate music without the same kinds of gifts. The author of Ephesians says nothing about the style of music or the training of those singing. But encourages folks to be filled with the Spirit as they sing to God together.
Even in the ancient near east, many schools of philosophy and ancient wisdom would have considered this pure foolishness.
But if the Ephesians took the advice they were given, I suspect they discovered wisdom.
I heard something once about synchrony, or simultaneous action, about how making music together changes the power of community, about how after people have done simple rhythm games together, they become more willing to make sacrifices for each other. If you sing with someone, you have to coordinate with them. If I sing with Bob, not that I would ever sing with Bob, I have to come outside of listening just to myself. I have to hear the note that Bob – or anyone else – is singing, and tune myself accordingly. The information coming into my ears has to coordinate with what comes out of my mouth. It’s a whole body effort, too – the movement of sound waves into my ears, moving with the sound waves coming from my throat and mouth.
What does this have to do with wisdom, not just with what we know, but how we live with God and other people? Wisdom is not just about my head, or my heart, but about synchrony, about the simultaneous action my whole body, how my rhythm coordinates with God’s rhythm, and the rhythm of everyone around me. Wisdom is recognizing that there’s music all around, and our job, our purpose, our calling, is to recognize that we are instruments, tuned in and tuned to the music of the Spirit, so that it might play through us.
We have many different ways to learn music – you can read the notes, you can listen to a tune repeatedly, you can learn technique, you can listen to the person beside you. But ultimately, you cannot learn to be a good musician all by yourself. You need to play with others, so that you learn to sing or to move like they do. It requires using all of yourself, and as you practice, you become part of the music. In Jesus we find that master teacher, and we are invited to move accordingly.
And the passage says, “make the most of your time, because the days are evil.” That’s the author’s way of saying that our world has gotten way out of tune, that our timing, our synchrony is way off. God needs wise people who know how to play in tune. Together.
In a world that emphasizes how much you know, wisdom emphasizes how well you live. In a world that values technique, wisdom values the Spirit. In a world that in musical terms would care about your range, how many notes you can play and how fast, wisdom wants to know if you are in tune, specifically in tune with the Holy Spirit. Wisdom knows that the Spirit is already working all kinds of goodness and justice in the world, but needs people who know how to tune their instruments to those particular notes. And wisdom, Christian wisdom, does not create gaps, dividing the haves and the have-nots. You don’t need a degree, nor do you receive a diploma. You don’t go $200K into debt. The wisdom of faith brings people together, and it’s open to anyone who wants it.
That’s what Western does, when we are at our best. My questions: how do you pay attention to the master teacher, to the One we consider most in tune? How do we sing? How do we play our instruments together, in synchrony, in a way that people long to hear? As we pay attention, as we listen together, may we all grow in wisdom together.