Cameron Trimble, keynote speaker at the inaugural Western Ontario Waterways Region Annual General Meeting (WOW AGM) in Port Elgin presented a triangle with familiar labels like this:
Do you recognize the roles we adopt, and labels we apply to others? Whatever the facts, the observable phenomena, we construe meaning in any relationship we experience and observe. This is a popular set of complementary roles, particularly at this church in our subculture.
What happens if you change the labels, and rewrite or even reassign the roles? Brené Brown, in her TED talk and Netflix special, tells of a moment with her husband, in which she imposes meaning (‘the story I’m telling myself is…’) and her husband is unable to make sense of her emotional response to a moment.
When I arrived in October 2017, Betty Pries of Credence and Company church consultants led a workshop for Trinity about ‘triangulation’. She had her finger on some congregational dynamics of distraction, and she encouraged us to deal more directly with one another. Too bad I am weak on therapeutic practice!
On this Trinity Sunday, the last in my transitional ministry, I offered my own cognitive take on the promises and threats about how we make meaning together in church:
One’s a tyranny – like patriarchy
(look out for the person pushing ‘unity’)
Two’s a dilemma – like heterosexism
(look out for ‘A or B’ ultimatums – choose ‘C’, both, or none)
Three’s a divine economy of intersectional identity
(look out for triangulation shell games of distraction)
Proverbs 9 was our text. Wisdom books generally in the bible offer great vocabulary for describing human frailties and foolishness, as well as teaching knowledge and wisdom. Elsewhere in these blogs, I call it ‘from Mom to MBA’, including common sense and sophisticated ancient near eastern training for court officials and diplomats.
This chapter offers an image of a feminine face and voice of the divine:
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls,
she calls from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’
That seems powerful enough – the generous patroness, offering and inviting. Who would not respond to Wisdom? We, the simple, the immature, are explicitly addressed. We do not have to be good enough!
However, in the real world, in the marketplace of ideas and culture, there is more than one voice. The genius of this chapter is to present a competing feminine face and voice, using the same opening words, with a twist:
The foolish woman is loud;
she is ignorant and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the high places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
‘You who are simple, turn in here!’
And to those without sense she says,
‘Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’
Proverbs confess human nature. Just because we’re students of human nature doesn’t mean we’re not subject to it. We’re practising religion, not accomplished at it! Too often we accuse and blame with these words, and too seldom use them in confession. Broadly, there are collections of Hebrew words in this chapter that can be grouped in categories and translated like this:
➢ Simple – Most of us, most of the time in most circumstances, are just simple. We aren’t stupid, we just don’t pay attention or direct our minds to circumstances – we react. Proverbs talk about the simple kind of foolishness a lot. It’s the commonest kind, the least pejorative term ‘pethi’ translated open, untaught, simple, open-minded, immature.
➢ Ignorant – Many of us, much of the time in many circumstances, are ignorant. We aren’t informed, and don’t choose to get the knowledge that might influence our choices, more from laziness than any bad intention. Proverbs can be more cutting about this foolishness, using Hebrew words ‘kesil’ and ‘hevil’ to convey more licentious or obstinate follies.
➢ Scoffer – Some of us, some of the time in some circumstances, are scoffers. We set ourselves above and apart, too smart by half, cynical, jaded sophisticates posing as superior, feeling insecure. Proverbs challenge scoffers more directly, with the word ‘letz’ translated scorner, arrogant, cynical, worldly, supercilious, or quarrelsome.
➢ Wicked – A few of us, more rarely, in a few circumstances, are wicked. We have evil intentions, pursued in bad ways. Proverbs condemn wickedness most roundly as ‘nabal’.
We were addressed this morning primarily as simple, or perhaps ignorant. My version of this presumption is ‘always start with the incompetence theory before the conspiracy theory in the church’. We hurt each other, and project labels and roles and tells stories, as foolish and lazy people – most of the time.
However, we do risk the sins of scoffers, as privileged people of middling ages and middling classes. We might do well to heed the warnings of Proverbs, and I must confess that the warnings have been realized in my Trinity time:
Whoever corrects a scoffer
whoever rebukes the wicked
A scoffer who is rebuked
will only hate you;
the wise, when rebuked,
will love you.
I wish for us all, wisdom. We need to discern between and among the competing claims. Proverbs warns us of unearned, stolen benefit, and of secret self-indulgence. These are the risks not of stupidity, but of cupidity, and the practices of talking about people, instead of talking with them. Proverbs promises us that the wise are teachable and trainable.
The reading from Romans 5 encourages the same kind of continuing practice, to grow and mature in the faith. It’s not a once for all conversion, but a lifetime of ‘sanctification’ to which we are invited. We get to keep choosing – rather than being rescued from ambiguity and agency.
Back at the turn of this century, I preached Romans 5 by quoting a sign on an ice cream truck on Spadina in Toronto:
Be careful of your thoughts –
they become your words
Be careful of your words –
they become your actions
Be careful of your actions –
they become your habits
Be careful of your habits –
they become your character
Be careful of your character –
it becomes your destiny
Thank God. No, really, thank God! You called. I came. I give thanks for relief and release on this ‘re-covenanting Sunday’. As I leave unrepentant, I will remain unreconciled, and you remain the same. God have mercy on all our souls. Let’s offer all that up to the God of ultimate justice: ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’
Here’s a prayer for ‘Trinity on Church’ on this Trinity Sunday:
Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Creator, Redeemer, Guide
Jehovah, Jesus, Paraclete
Womb, word, wind
Tiamat, Sophia, Shekinah
Crossing, breaching, plunging
Cause of all that is
Christ in and through all that is,
Spirit within, between, among all life
Remind us now, to whom we pray
Lest we misdirect the call
And get the right answer to the wrong question
You first intended us, inviting our will toward you
You always knew what’s on our minds, of truth
You already feel what’s in our hearts, in beauty
Yet we try out words to get it said, together
Signifiers of something more and yet less
Far beyond us yet within us
Who could comprehend the height or depths?
We barely apprehend, see the surface!
Unable to describe, how would we prescribe,
Too quick to propose, we who cannot dispose
Teach us to pray…. For you know we need it
If we are to share what is fully human
If we are to relate with entirely divine
What word do you have for our hearts,
O God, give us ears to hear,