Chapel – George Sweetman

George Sweetman

Continuing our summer series with this week's Chapel podcast is George Sweetman, Dean of Student Life at Tyndale. George reflects on Proverbs 8 – a message about how to navigate life with grace, faith and truth while being wise and not succumbing to "the wrong way" – to consider and journey on the right way.

Podcast Transcript

Ever since I can remember, I have been deeply attracted to the wise, gentle, soft-spoken, and grace-filled. I remember as a boy meeting a friend in elementary school back in Montreal who was confident, but soft-spoken, athletic, but not showy, intelligent but never flashy. Even though he was the same age as I, I looked up to him; I wanted to be like him. There was a depth to him that was uncommon for someone who was just nine years old. Then as I entered my teen years, then the 20s, and into the rest of my life, it's been the same -- the quiet, thoughtful ones who speak only occasionally but with gravitas, the ones who are widely competent but profoundly content, the ones who offer words of gentle rebuke and loving correction often with grace in their eyes and an index finger on their bottom lip, the ones who choose the right way even in the light of siren distractions that try to coax them off the narrow path -- these are the ones that I wish I could emulate. These are the ones whose character equals their contributions. There is a coherence and congruence to their life -- everything just makes sense.

Have you ever thought of what you'd want written as your epitaph, you know, something that would summarize your life in one pithy statement? For me, it'd be something like this, "He lived a caring, gentle, gracious, and wise life for his family, his friends, and his God." I'm not convinced that these words would be true of me today but I venture on with the hope that one day even a shadow of this will be a reflection of the person I was.

Maybe that's why the book of Proverbs is so attractive to me. And why this chapter grabbed me: it's a chapter about how to navigate life with grace and faith and truth while being wise and not succumbing to "the wrong way". Because, whether we like it or not and whether our world tells us otherwise, there are right ways and ways that aren't. Proverbs 8 cajoles us to consider and journey on the right way.

Do you hear Lady Wisdom calling?
Can you hear Madame Insight raising her voice?
She’s taken her stand at First and Main,
at the busiest intersection.
Right in the city square
where the traffic is thickest, she shouts,
“You—I’m talking to all of you,
everyone out here on the streets!
Listen, you idiots—learn good sense!
You blockheads—shape up!
Don’t miss a word of this—I’m telling you how to live well,
I’m telling you how to live at your best.
My mouth chews and savors and relishes truth—
I can’t stand the taste of evil!
You’ll only hear true and right words from my mouth;
not one syllable will be twisted or skewed.
You’ll recognize this as true—you with open minds;
truth-ready minds will see it at once.
Prefer my life-disciplines over chasing after money,
and God-knowledge over a lucrative career.
For Wisdom is better than all the trappings of wealth;
nothing you could wish for holds a candle to her.
“I am Lady Wisdom, and I live next to Sanity;
Knowledge and Discretion live just down the street.
The Fear-of-God means hating Evil,
whose ways I hate with a passion—
pride and arrogance and crooked talk.
Good counsel and common sense are my characteristics;
I am both Insight and the Virtue to live it out.

My benefits are worth more than a big salary, even a very big salary;
the returns on me exceed any imaginable bonus.
You can find me on Righteous Road—that’s where I walk—
at the intersection of Justice Avenue,
Handing out life to those who love me,
filling their arms with life—armloads of life!

“So, my dear friends, listen carefully;
those who embrace these my ways are most blessed.
Mark a life of discipline and live wisely;
don’t squander your precious life.
Blessed the man, blessed the woman, who listens to me,
awake and ready for me each morning,
alert and responsive as I start my day’s work.
When you find me, you find life, real life,
to say nothing of God’s good pleasure.
But if you wrong me, you damage your very soul;
when you reject me, you’re flirting with death.”

As we've just heard, Lady Wisdom speaks. She is both the personification of wisdom as well as an attribute of God Himself. And a significant one at that. She cautions and cajoles. There is immediacy in her proclamations. This is life and death stuff. There's urgency and she's serious. And she doesn't suffer fools gladly, does she?

As I studied this chapter in Proverbs and the invited life of wisdom for all who care to follow, I was struck by a contrasting image of another female protagonist but one who is very different than Lady Wisdom: her name is Elizabeth Holmes.

Elizabeth Holmes was the founder and CEO of Theranos, a once-valuable bio-tech company based in the Silicon Valley in northern California. Holmes, an unrelentingly ambitious young woman, wanted to do two things in her life: make a difference on a grand scale and become very wealthy. And, she did...for a time.

By the time she was only 19 and a drop out from Stanford University, she had started a company that had the promise to revolutionise the blood testing industry in the US and in doing so, health care itself. Spurred on by her own mother's phobia of needles, her creative mind, the influences of others who were making an impact during a very fertile time on the West Coast, Holmes enlisted scientists, biomedical engineers, and investors to develop technology contained in what was only to be a box not much larger than a banker's one that would be able to analyze blood from only a small prick of the patient's finger. The cost of analyzing the blood, like the finger prick, would be miniscule to the patient compared to the way things had been. The problem was: the magic-analyzing box never worked.

At one point in the late 2000s, Theranos was valued at over 9 billion USD, Holmes having shrewdly and deceptively raised a fistful of dollars from venture capitalists and big pharma across the US. Fortune magazine spoke glowingly of Holmes and attributed her business acumen and personal persuasion as the reasons for her to be crowned the youngest self-made female billionaire in the United States at that time. But it all came crashing down as whistle-blowers began to leak information to the media about the mistreatment of employees and scandalous deception of research, financial fraud, compromised patient-safety, and misappropriation of funds. After suicides of long-time friends and long-term contributors, the ruthless firings of older scientists and younger interns, the dissolution of family ties among investors and board members, and Holmes' own relationships, Theranos, like Holmes' character, was bankrupted.

Some of her initial intentions were honorable: reduce health-care costs for ordinary Americans, wipe away the stigma of blood-testing, and more comprehensively analyse plasma, cells, and hemoglobin for a plethora of diseases and genetic abnormalities. But Holmes got swept up in trying to impress others, build her company and bank account without scruples, prove herself capable and smart in a competitive sector leading to contrived wardrobes, fake vocal inflections, and transitory and manipulated relationships. Once the lie had been established, there was no going back for Holmes. Deception built on deception; lie covered lie. In her pursuit of significance, relevance, and wealth -- for her own type of gold, silver, and rubies -- she traded her integrity for the trappings of the world. Notably and perhaps oddly given the stature of some of the people who agreed to sit on her board, she really didn't surround herself with the wise and discerning...or, if someone dared to speak up, Holmes would summarily dismissed their ideas and often themselves. Holmes went from being that Fortune magazine darling of the tech industry to a convicted felon. The inward turn and away from wisdom and mentors resulted in a self-isolating prison of her own making.

The contrast between Holmes' choices, decisions, and life are in stark antithesis to that which Lady Wisdom offers us to consider. In Holmes case, the evidence is clear and dramatic. But you don't need to lose billions of dollars or end up in prison to be found guilty of living an unwise life. Holmes is an extravagant case - but her life is a reflection of smaller choices and distractions that we embrace ourselves.

There is a popular image used on book covers and websites these days. The image is of a busy city intersection from the point of view of a drone that hovers several feet above the chaos. The image is interesting because the visible crosswalk not only is shaped in the form of a square, but also as an X, as if to mark a spot. The image is compelling to me: it shows throngs of pedestrians making their way to their destinations – you can't see their faces because of the vantage point but you feel the movement even though the image is static. There are cars too – some stopped and waiting their turn to continue their journey. Others in motion off to the next.

Along the perimeter of the image are buildings - one can imagine that these multi-floored edifices contain offices, banks, and boutiques, perhaps a movie theatre or a few shops too. The image bustles with energy and a sense of undistracted movement. The assumed commerce, industry, transportation, and connection are implied. The focus of each person, each vehicle, getting from here to there is powerful. People are looking straight ahead, no time for conversation let alone to throw a couple of quarters in the pan-handlers Timmy's cup. There's movement everywhere. And one can imagine the noise: a cacophony of sound: a few faithful protesters declaring their belief in something, car horns raging, van brakes squealing, dump-truck growling; bikers ringing, and all the walkers, joggers, and runners, pitter-pattering on the hot summer concrete and asphalt. From the view of the drone, it's like watching an ant farm in a state of continual flux.

Imagine being at street level – perhaps even think here about the hustle and bustle of Yonge-Dundas Square in Downtown Toronto: the beautiful and not so beautiful intermingled walking by, hurriedly getting to their somewhere; street signs, calligraphic posters in windows, and the ubiquitous "neoned" billboards on top of buildings beckoning us with sly marketing or sexually enticing postures to buy, consume, dispose and thereby find our best selves. I would imagine that for the recent immigrant to Toronto, or the exile from rural life, or the agoraphobic, the swirling, twirling nauseous-inducing fluidity is too much. For anyone really, it's too much. Voices, images, sounds, smells all trying to lure us into their powerful grasp of the good life: wealth, power, looks, youthfulness, – a sense of arrival.

It's really no wonder that Lady Wisdom stands at the city gate in this Proverb, at the busiest intersection of life and shouts her invitation and warning. There is a better, truer, wiser way, she declares. She implores us – Seek it, find it, live it. Wisdom knows how our daily ordinary lives shape us. It's the stuff that we do, day in and day out, in and out of weeks and years that forms us – that makes us more or less human. We must ask the question: do our practices curve us inward toward a dehumanizing death or do these habits of life stretch us outward and upwards to new fresh venues and rich relationships – to greater depth and love? Do our rhythms of life declare the Kingdom of God through our actions toward the excluded, the orphaned, the exiled, the street-involved, the wealthy but blissfully unaware, even creation itself?

Unlike advertising slogans and sex-sells billboards, we see in this Proverb that Lady Wisdom shouts true words of invitation into the good life – into sacred rhythms of habits, practices, and ways that lead to life than away from it. The ways we ought to go.

In Lady Wisdom, there is no deception, no crudity, no perversity – she longs for us to join her on the journey of right-living and nothing – not riches or prestige or power can level the beauty of a life of wisdom.

So what then is "wisdom"? This is what it isn't: it's not only scholarly learning, or compounding our education, or even sheer intelligence – wisdom is more: perhaps it’s some of these things (and even none of those things). What it is is the experience of daily living – faithfully following the precepts of God and living inauspiciously – without self-aggrandizing acclaim. There's a quiet way about wisdom - a life that makes sense, it's congruent – you know, what's true in public makes sense in private. What we see up front is what God knows behind the closed door. I really like how Eugene Peterson introduces the book of Proverbs in his paraphrase The Message. He says:

"'Wisdom' is the biblical term for this on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven everyday living. Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves. It has virtually nothing to do with information as such, with knowledge as such....Wisdom has to do with becoming skillful in honoring our parents and raising our children, handling our money and conducting our sexual lives, going to work and exercising leadership, using words well and treating friends kindly, eating and drinking healthily, cultivating emotions within ourselves and attitudes toward others that make for peace. Threaded through all these items is the insistence that the way we think of and respond to God is the most practical thing we do. In matters of everyday practicality, nothing, absolutely nothing, takes precedence over God."

Wise words.

So where does this leave us? I know that even as I prepared this short reflection, I was doing so while trying to juggle a number of other responsibilities and obligations. While I chewed on the passage for a long time, I didn't actually complete the task until almost too late. It wasn't because I was pursuing riches and power like Elizabeth Holmes, but maybe there was a desire for some acclaim and prestige just the same. The process got bogged down as I thought about relevance and the longing for significance. I wanted this to be good; I wanted it to connect with you. I became distracted by the results rather than how the passage was shaping me; what could I learn myself and of myself?

I think this Proverb is significant in offering an antidote to the elixirs in our lives that make us drunk on the unchecked things in our lives, from right-living or as Peterson writes of Romans 12 - "our everyday ordinary life - our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around-life – [that we ought to] place...before God as an offering".

Tish Harrison Warren in a lovely little book called Liturgy of the Ordinary reflects of the regular or routine practices of life as they pertain to how we are shaped as Jesus followers. The book is wise. In essence, Warren challenges us to reflect on how the things we do daily, repetitively, shape us into people we are becoming. These habits can be life-giving; but many rob us of our humanity not necessarily because the action or practice is harmful in itself, (although this is true for some), but more because the habit reveals where our loves lie - often outside of our love for God. And even good thinking isn't necessarily enough to rouse us out of our sleep-walking through life.

We are all aware that our local congregations and parishes have liturgies that we follow – whether we attend a high Anglican church or charismatic Pentecostal one – and in these liturgies or patterns we are enfolded into a way of being that is both new and more so rich with history and connection with brothers and sisters around the globe and throughout the ages. These liturgies shape us. They offer us guidance on wisdom and life. At their best, they counter the cultural offerings that are more often than not insidiously absorbed into our being. At the very least, we hope that they would expose the lies that we follow and have adopted in our lives – ways of acting and being that are malformed or misaligned with God's true way. Lady Wisdom speaks here.

Calvin University philosopher James Smith puts it this way:

"So, the question is, Are there habits and practices that we acquire without knowing it? Are there ritual forces in our culture that we perhaps naively immerse ourselves in—and are thus formed by—that, when we consider them more closely, are pointed at some ultimate end? Are there mundane routines that we participate in that, if we are attentive, function as thick practices aimed at a particular vision of the good life? "

At the end, most of what we do and how we act has been shaped in us through the liturgies of life. Sometimes these things happen what we pick up a new routine or habit; often it's when old practices are abandoned. I suppose this is what scares me as we come out of the pandemic: so many of us have become used to watching church rather than being the church. I know that I do. So what will this say about who we are and the short and long term repercussions for our culture? I'm more than a little concerned.

Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 both warns us and beckons us: we're warned not to pursue the things of the world that will shape our loves in ways that are almost indecipherable to us, things that we will begin to worship, to make as an idol, but to pursue wisdom and right living by being immersed in the God-life. Warren writes,

"I need rituals that encourage me to embrace what is repetitive, ancient, and quiet. But what I crave is novelty and stimulation....[but]much of the Christian life is returning over and over to the same work and the same habits of worship. We must contend with the same spiritual struggles again and again. The work of repentance and faith is daily and repetitive. Again and again, we repent
and believe."

May we all respond to Lady Wisdom's call in pursuing right-living. May wisdom be something that marks our community here at Tyndale, especially as we re-emerged from these pandemic days and discern our next steps as a community and as individuals. The life that is offered is full and beautiful and models something that our present day longs for: wisdom – to understand the times, make good and healthy decisions, act justly, and walk with our God to serve the church and the world for His glory.


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