Last Thursday evening found me at the lathe, wood chips flying, carving out my daughter's future. Well, kind of. It was a baton I was making, the kind that are used in relay races. Our oldest was turning 13 on the morrow and we wanted to set her up well for the next leg of the race. And so, on the very next day we sat in our living room, family and significant friends all around, and we ushered her into young adulthood. The men in the room all spoke briefly of qualities they had seen in Maggie that they especially appreciated, and the women passed on sage bits of advice for her journey into womanhood. All the comments were recorded on paper, rolled up, inserted in the drilled out center of the baton, capped over, and then passed into my daughter's hand. It was the spirit of the genealogy that animated us, family and community together, pointing a life towards the divine intent and encouraging her onwards. But what makes this hand-off successful? In the past two articles I have shown that the Bible genealogy roots us in a history which has at its center the divine intent, that is the vision of God by which He created. Such rooting gives a significance to each individual life that cannot be obtained in any other way. But between the individual and that history lies the connecting link of the community. The question about the success of the hand-off is really a question about the health of the community. And to explore that question we need a vigorous conception of what community health actually looks like. But first we must clear up one little matter.
The Chicken or the Egg Dilemma
Is it the action of the individual that brings health to the community, or the action of the community that brings health to the individual? It is an important question because it helps us come to grips with the ways in which a community moves towards health, and the role of both community and individual in that movement. And yet it may be a misleading question in that the answer is not either-or but both.
One thing should be clear and that is that the individual does not live in isolation, nor as an end unto himself, nor as a primary focus of attention, all of which are temptations especially tempting to the fallen. Nonetheless, there is much that comes to the community through individuals, all the more so when they have recognized and gained victory over the above temptations. Individuals, when standing in their proper God-given role and place, become a power for the good, an elevating influence or leaven to the whole. So much so, that we are inclined to say that the individual comes first, that it is the individual that brings health to the community. And certainly this is a healthy outlook for the individual to adopt, the proper outlook. We are to be for the others, not for ourselves.
Yet at the same time the individual is not first in this order. The community is. The idea of the self-made man is mythological. All that is best in us has been given to us by another, many others in fact, chief among them God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so an argument can be made, just as vigorous, that it is the community that brings health to the individual. This goal, the community should certainly set as one of its highest priorities. We should aim at becoming a context, better said a place, where the tide of uplift is so strong that an individual would have to fight hard to resist it.
Such an attainment will and does demand our utmost in alertness and diligent effort, both individually and together. The machinations which work against us are legion, both from within and without. But we have been given what we need for the effort in foundation texts, passages on which we can build if we will but give them their due. 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 come to mind, as well as Ephesians chapter 4. In these passages both the individual and the community may find the working material for community of the highest order. But principal perhaps is the book of Proverbs, a book that is of the highest importance for the centering of the community and the individual together in their proper tasks. Proverbs Divine no!
Proverbs is the quintessential community text, following the patterns of genealogical continuity and connection. And its focus is wisdom. Wisdom is the biblical word which is expressive of the divine intent in creation, the intent which we have argued is to be the center and focus of all our living, that which the individual bends every effort to attain and the community busies itself to hoard and pass on. Proverbs 8 makes this clear. To pursue wisdom is to measure your stride by creation patterns, God ordained patterns. And it is the pursuit of wisdom which is the proper business of community. So much so that this becomes the true marker of community health, that health which we argued above is so necessary to the successful passing of the baton of faith.
If wisdom is to be gained, however, we must be clear as to what wisdom is and isn't. Apart from such clarity we all too easily settle for something other or less than wisdom. Two alternatives have become especially popular in our day.
One of these is knowledge. Though knowledge plays a part in wisdom, it can be pursued and hoarded and displayed without a hint of wisdom showing up anywhere: knowledge exiled to the theoretical, knowledge that has lost its work gloves. Such knowledge distracts so powerfully from the quest for wisdom because it is easier. Wisdom requires engagement with the messy and difficult realities of human life and community; it necessitates becoming “comfortable” with uncertainty and perplexity and it calls for humble patience, as the honing provided by experience takes time. Knowledge does not cost so much. Pursued in isolation from the rough and tumble it comes free and easy.
Technique, that is method applied to everything, is another revered distraction of our age. Technique when applied provides a map for every eventuality. You know where you are going, even before you get there and outcomes are guaranteed. Technique promises facility in every endeavor, without the hard work of wisdom; nor does the application of technique require understanding. And so in the press for success techniques proliferate wildly. And yet technique has its down sides. With technique at the helm the world becomes man sized and man centered and with technique at the helm people become either problems to be solved or pawns to be moved rather than persons, whom we might come to know and understand and share life's journeys with. Is there a place for techniques? Certainly. But not when dealing with God and Holy Texts and people. A continued reliance upon technique in these realms will eventually bring us to the point where applications of technique are thought to be the only way forward. Wisdom becomes inaccessible.
To these distractions the community of faith must say no, and one of her best allies in articulation that no is the book of Proverbs. Proverbs bolsters our conviction that wisdom is the proper business of the family: father and son, mother and daughter, parents with their children; but not just family, there are also sages from the past, elders at the gate, and friends that give rebukes as sweet as kisses. But it is more than just a no that draws us away from bypaths. It is the compelling vision of what wisdom is all about and Proverbs provides us with this as well.
Proverbs Divine yes!
Wisdom lies at the very root of things. It was wisdom that informed and shaped each act of divine creation. And as foundation it becomes the catch all word for everything that comes from God. A perusal of Proverbs 8 turns up the following as synonymous with wisdom: noble things, right things, true things, righteous things, things untouched by crookedness and perversion, straightforward things. As the synonyms pile up you find yourself longing for insight into the commitments and patterns and responses that make up such a life, that capture the fullness of the divine intent, the divine imagining of what would be and could be in the world that He made. This is at the heart of wisdom, this vision of what God meant and intended when He made and sabbathed the world.
This is the first task of the community, the work of recapturing true patterns, of sorting through murkiness, and wrongheadedness, and confusion, and even downright perversion, so as to find and keep alive the true shape of things—the will of God shape, the image of God shape—in things and especially in people.
But this is not all. As a community regains its vision it must learn how to pursue that vision in all kinds of difficult, contrary, and even contentious settings. Wisdom, remember, wears work gloves. The vision is never detached from daily realities, from the problems and responsibilities of ordinary living. To be able to ask and answer the question, “How do I move in this situation and in this moment so as to serve the higher ends of God” that is wisdom. And it isn't easy. Just as mining isn't easy. Digging deep, blasting through rock, moving mountains, looking for gold.
And it is because it isn't easy that the final element must be set forth; wisdom involves developed capacities. I may see the vision, but not have the strength or capacity to bring it into being. The hardest part of the quest for wisdom is the reshaping, the transformation of myself, each self, into a being that is capable of embodying God's vision, truly a God work, but one that I must stay engaged with.
It is this that our hearts hunger for, this vision being lived together in and with our communities. The community may be far from perfect, indeed she is far from perfect. But if she is applying herself to these wisdom tasks her life and witness will prove compelling, her health and vigor unabated, her sons and daughter's eager to reach out and grasp the baton that is passed to them, so as to run the same compelling race they have seen enacted around them, in shops and marketplaces, factories and fields, courtrooms and hospitals.
May each of us pray to the church that which I whispered to my Maggie as I handed her my baton, hoping she would choose to run the race most worth running. “Run, girl, run!”