Start Here

In my own true fashion, my second entry to be written perhaps ought to be the first one read. In my chronologically first post, I dove straight in to the question of what this blog is about – specifically, diving deep into the wide, wonderful world of the Hebrew Bible’s Wisdom Literature. I offered up some observations on what the Wisdom Literature is, very specifically what we mean we say the word “proverb” since we’re going to be spending a lot of time with a whole book of ’em, and ended with a general invitation to come along for a journey into what scripture has to say about who and what we are, who and what God is, and what both of those realities ought to mean for how we navigate life in this world. Not a bad way to start off, but I think it may be helpful to know a bit more about who I am and why I feel compelled to embark on this exegetical journey, the endpoint of which is yet undetermined. After all, if the words of Dr. Yvonne Delk (the first African American woman ordained in the United Church of Christ, a great teacher, and a personal inspiration) ring true – that “what you see depends on where you sit” – then you might want to know about my chair (so to speak) before you pull yours up to the table.

So, the vital stats. I am a thirtysomething white, straight, cisgender man. I grew up in a blue collar middle class family in a smallish factory town on the Texas Gulf Coast – my dad’s hometown, though my mom is originally from the Mid-Atlantic. I grew up Southern Baptist, then nondenominational (with a strong influence from both Baptist and Pentecostal theologies), then went off to an ELCA college and eventually became a Theology major, ELCA Lutheran, and seminarian (now pastor)…in that order. I am married with one child, and after time spent in Ghana, Uruguay, Colorado, rural Iowa, and Chicago (for almost ten years), I now live in the countryside of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. I have served in pastoral capacities in four congregations – as a detached intern (i.e. basically solo pastor) at a small town Iowa church, as a pastoral assistant for a cash-poor but ministry-rich inner city Chicago congregation, as pastor at a small near-suburban congregation literally across the street from Chicago city limits, and now as the very part-time pastor at a very small church in a very small town.

That’s me in a nutshell, the easily listed demographics of who I am. More personally, I am an Enneagram 9 and a Myers-Briggs INFJ (for those who put stock in these kinds of things). I’m a little bit of a polyglot and jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none when it comes to interests and skillsets…I’ve dabbled in a wide variety of things. Since high school, I’ve been passionate about how to help people connect the words of the Bible to their daily lives, and since college, I’ve been passionate about how the Bible can inform our wider worldview…and about how our own identifies color how we engage and interpret scripture. I have a fondness for the B-List sections of the scriptural canon…the stuff that doesn’t show up often in the lectionary, and that most casual readers of the Bible tend to skip. Very specifically, Old Testament History, the Wisdom Literature, and the Minor Prophets have always excited me. We really just don’t know what to do with them as a contemporary Christians, so in my experience, we tend either to ignore them completely (a la mainline Protestantism) or read and apply them poorly (a la many evangelical and fundamentalist Christian traditions).

And that, right there, is why I’m writing. Even more than inviting you, my dear reader, into reflecting about what a life of wisdom might mean, I’m on a mission both to make the Wisdom Literature accessible and engaging for those who might otherwise ignore it, and to provide a more exegetically rigorous take on matters than I experienced in my own early years of studying scripture. That being said, this is not a “scholarly” blog. I am not a professional scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures; I’m a pastor. My principle concern is drawing forth things of value for application and contemplation by laypeople; I know my limits, and they stop well before claiming this writing endeavor will be marked by its academic rigor and cutting edge scholarship.

I close with this thought, perhaps my deepest convictions when it comes to how we ought to be engaging with the Bible. If we are really, honestly open to hearing God’s Word (in a broader, more Lutheran sense of that concept) though the words of scripture…it’s going to leave a mark. It’s going to challenge our preconceptions about who we are, who God is, and how the world is. Nothing tells me faster that I am reading myself and my beliefs into scripture rather than letting it be read into me than finding myself feeling perfectly comfortable and content while doing so. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing…and the Bible’s swing is way bigger than my own politics, theology, or worldview. The Holy Spirit loves to provoke and agitate as much as comfort and console.

So, perhaps that’s my greatest hope and most sincere prayer here – that the Spirit will show up in this work and engage in some provocation, some holy agitation to confront us all with whatever wisdom it is we need to hear. As we dialogue with these books, may we be formed – and transformed – by how God meets us in the conversation.

Definitionally speaking…

It is good to begin any study of anything by defining what, in fact, you are studying. So, let’s start there. What, exactly, am I looking at in this blog – what is “the Wisdom Literature?” What, for that matter, is a “proverb,” since I’m going to be spending an awful lot of time looking at a whole collection of them?

The easy (well, easier) one first. When I say “Wisdom Literature,” I specifically mean several books of the Bible that have traditionally been identified as texts about what God has to say about wise living in our world. As of January 2018, I am focusing my attention on four books of scripture, three of which are almost always included on the list of “Wisdom Literature” – Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. I’m also adding on the Song of Solomon because, in its own way, it offers up perspectives on wisdom…and wisdom that it would behoove us to heed in the 21st century. Over time, I may also devote some attention to works not included in the Hebrew scriptures or Protestant canon, but that Catholic and Orthodox traditions hold up as “Wisdom Literature,” as well. That being said…it’s going to be a while before we really work all the way through the four books already on the docket. I’m starting with Proverbs; there will be an upcoming separate entry on why that is, but for now suffice it to say that these thirty-one chapters of ancient  text have plenty enough to unpack. I’d bring a sack lunch.

Now, then, if we’re starting with Proverbs…what *is* a proverb? The odds are good that the average person would give a definition along the lines of “a wise saying,” and that’s not wrong – that’s dictionary definition kind of material. Fundamentally, most of the content of the biblical Book of Proverbs is exactly that – pithy maxims concerning how to live wisely. But…I think there’s more to explore here as we set out.

For starters, let’s talk about language. The Book of Proverbs was written originally in Hebrew; its translation into Greek included in a volume of Jewish scripture called the Septuagint, which largely served as the Bible for early Christians, is also significant to our modern translations. But, lest we forget, we are working with translations when we read Proverbs in English – and to translate means to interpret.

Even using the word “proverb” is, to a certain extent, an interpretation. Our English word comes from the Latin proverbium; quite literally “words put forward,” though meaning basically the same thing in context. Wise words put forward for people. How does that compare to the Hebrew and Greek? In Hebrew, the very first word in Proverbs 1:1 (basically the title line of the book) is mishlei, derived from the verb mashalMashal means “to represent or be like;” mishlei communicate to us in words the essence of what things are like. These nuggets are words put forward to show us reality, words representing the fundamental nature of things. The Greek Septuagint offers us a collection of paroimiai. This is a compound word – para, meaning “near” or “about” or “in proximity to” depending on context, and oiomai, meaning “to make like (oneself), to imagine, to suppose, to think.” Clearly, there are a lot of hairs to split here if you’re so inclined, but the general thrust is that these texts are intended to provoke imagination and reflection around how to be. Three words – proverb/proverbium, mishlei, paroimiai – three distinct emphases on what exactly is going on here, and three intriguing entry points into the question of why should we engage with these words put forward to provoke thought and transformation about the way things are.

So, why *should* we engage with these proverbs (to use the word, knowing its a bit loaded, for the sake of simplicity)? Because they matter. They put flesh onto theoretical bones about what God is like, what life is about, and what that means for who we are and how we should be. I once heard a well-meaning professor wave off the entire Book of Proverbs as “sayings about how rich people should manage their money;” while, sure, yes, that’s a part of the whole here, there’s a lot more in these thirty one chapters than that…and even those sections are of surprising relevance in the 21st century context.

At the end of the day, the Book of Proverbs is an invitation to reflect on the interrelationship between divine life and human nature – and neither God nor humanity have changed much in the last few thousand years. That, in a nutshell, is why I’m starting this blog. We have not achieved “peak wisdom,” neither as the Church nor as a species more broadly. We’re not even close. We need wisdom – the kind of wisdom that God offers up. So, I end with an invitation – let’s take a look at this tradition of writing about the wise life, about human nature and God’s nature and wealth and death and sex and love and suffering and pain and life…and let’s learn what it means to be human, created in God’s image, along the way.