Becoming a People of Wisdom
It’s been an amazing week of discovery, learning, and fellowship at Senior VBS. I am so grateful to this congregation for taking this crazy idea of mine and running with it.
Our lay leaders have been tremendous in helping get this program off the ground, and although I can only speak for myself, I think we all had a lot of fun.
The main theme of our time together was discernment of call, a theme I preached about to the whole congregation last week and what I wrote about in my newsletter article this week.
I’ve been hitting that theme so hard because today is Welcoming Sunday, when we sign up for all the ministries we’re going to take part in for the next year.
I wanted us to spend this conscious time in spiritual reflection on vocation and call because as one of our lay leaders, Nicole Seiler, I think, said, the actual day of Welcoming Sunday is no time to be in discernment.
It’s a crowded, happy, festive day, with ice cream and conversation and noise and kids running around. It’s fabulous, but it’s not a time for deep reflection on your vocation in ministry.
That needs to come before Welcoming Sunday, and I hope over the last couple of weeks we’ve provided you with the tools, including the Ministry Guide, to have that conversation with God and your family about your call to ministry this year.
So we talked a lot about vocation at Senior VBS, and about how to build holistic practices of health and sustainability that make us able to answer our call. We talked about health, law, finances, grief and loss, caregiving—the full spectrum of life that affects us as ministers of the gospel.
But the Holy Spirit loves to throw me a curve ball now and then, and I felt deeply led as I began the program on Sunday to include another strand of reflection for which I had done no preparation at all.
And that theme was this: what does it mean to be an elder?
The fact of the matter is, we have a lot of seniors in our society, but very few elders.
American culture does not honor or value elders. We have a pernicious practice of ageism in our society.
If you’re over sixty you are liable to be stereotyped as out of touch, set in your ways, unable to adapt to new ideas, and not valuable to society.
You are shunted away and deemed irrelevant.
This is a huge mistake, because it prevents us younger people from benefitting from the rich and varied experience of our seniors.
But the other side of the coin is this: neither church nor society is teaching older people how to transition from being seniors to being elders, and there is a very real difference.
A senior is someone who is chronologically older than 60. An elder is a person of wisdom.
We need elders in this church, and in our society.
And so we took some time every night at Senior VBS to talk about what makes an elder.
Part of the reason I’m bringing this up here is so the rest of the congregation can hear and know about what we’ve been doing all week at Senior VBS.
But the other reason is that the territory of eldership we covered is deeply relevant to all of our spiritual journeys, no matter how old we are.
So what are the characteristics of an elder?
I think the most important one is that elders have nothing to prove.
They’ve been through the stages of life where they’ve built their career, raised their children, bought a home, checked off all the boxes of what it means to be a “success” in our society.
All of those things are good and valuable for young adults, adults, and middle-aged folks.
But when people are 70+ years old and still jockeying for position, still trying to get the world to recognize how special and important they are, still living according to the performance principle, something is wrong.
The spiritual journey should lead us beyond all those external markers of identity into something far deeper.
How do we get to that something deeper?
Richard Rohr says that great love and great suffering are what lead us there.
Life is going to take care of the great suffering for you. By the time you’re a senior, you’ve dealt with disappointment, grief and loss, death, illness, economic stress, betrayals and hurts, and disillusionment with yourself, others, and the institutions you’ve served.
But what’s the difference between someone who becomes bitter out of suffering and someone who becomes wise?
Wisdom comes from the deep vulnerability of surrendering to love even in the midst of suffering, when the far easier path is to shut down and close yourself off, or lose yourself in the mindless surface pursuits of materialism and day-to-day busyness.
A person who consciously opens himself or herself to the great mystery of the interaction of love and suffering—which is the great mystery of the Cross—is on the road to becoming an elder.
And the two greatest tools for helping us to do that are spiritual practice and spiritual community.
Wise people, elders, are people of deep and abiding prayer, and deep and abiding presence in spiritual community.
There are no shortcuts to becoming an elder, but it is a role and a ministry that the rest of us need so deeply.
Think of the elders you have known—not seniors, but elders.
These are people who radiate grace.
They are like transparent glass that the Holy Spirit shines through.
They have a palpable sense of groundedness and peace about them.
You know they don’t feel like they have to prove anything to anyone, and so they don’t impose their opinions and advice onto everyone.
But their wisdom is so visible that people come to them for guidance.
Some elders are gentle, and as Dan Kubley pointed out, some elders are quite salty. They have a prophetic voice that points out uncomfortable truths, but it comes from a place of wisdom, not competiveness or combativeness.
And above all, they are people of love.
When you’re in their presence, you know you’re loved.
It is so nourishing for us younger people to be in the presence of elders, and I am convinced that this congregation has so much potential in this area, both to raise up elders and to be guided and loved by them.
When I look back over my life I see the influence of the elders I’ve known—they believed in me, and had faith in me, and loved me, even when I was being an idiot, and they’re a big part of how I’ve answered my call to ministry.
Elders were pivotal to both the communities of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
These are the communities we call ourselves the heirs to—how did we lose this entire category of people in ministry?
And Wisdom was named as the third person of the Trinity, the feminine expression of the Holy Spirit, the very presence that hovered over the deep in creation and brought order the chaos of the void.
God knows the chaos of the void seems to stalk us more closely than ever in our current divided times, and I believe that our entire congregation is called to be and become a people of wisdom.
Consider the words of our Ephesians text this morning: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Wisdom addresses us directly in our first reading: “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.’”
“You that are simple…to those without sense.” One characteristic of elders, of all people of wisdom, is that they know how much they don’t know.
It is not difficult for a wise person to admit their lack of knowledge because they don’t base their identity on the false standards of the world.
Wise people know not just in their heads but down to their bones that they are beloved children of God, and they are honest and comfortable about their poverty of knowledge.
They know that their job is not to know everything, but to let the Holy Spirit speak through their emptiness to communicate God’s voice to the world.
Do you see the difference?
“Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” This is the call to all of us, especially on Welcoming Sunday as we embark on a new program year.
Whether you are a child, a teenager, a young adult, an adult, a middle-aged person, or a senior, we are all called to grow up into the full stature of Christ.
You don’t wake up the day you turn 60 and then say, “I guess I’d better get started on learning how to become an elder.”
Every day of our lives, from childhood on, has a role to play in the ministry we’ll one day take on, God willing, of being the grounded, giving presence of an elder in our community.
So every one of us in this room is answering the call to grow into an elder, no matter how old we are.
And we have a corporate, communal call to wisdom that can speak truth in love in this city, this county, this country.
There’s a familiar saying, “Knowledge is power,” but that cuts more than one way.
Power is all too often abused to dominate others and to feed our egos.
So perhaps we need to create another aphorism backed up by Biblical witness: “Knowledge is power, but wisdom is love.”
Wisdom is a name for the third person of the Trinity, and we know that the Trinity is a constant outpouring of love.
One of the many things that stuck with me from my time at the Living School was a saying by Jim Finley: “The Christian walk is a journey in holiness, but only in this sense: it’s not about forcing or engineering yourself to become more holy. It’s far more about God awakening you to the holiness of every single person around you.”
That is the path of wisdom—the path of love—and my prayer is that every single one of us, no matter our age, will answer the call to that path today.
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