We all have them, and some of us may, in fact, be them. You know what I’m talking about: Facebook Friends who post inspirational quotes.
Mind you, I am not opposed to inspirational quotes as a matter of principle. A little inspiration every once in awhile never hurt anyone. I find reading a repeated barrage of inspirational quotes kind of akin to the feeling you get when you eat way too much Halloween candy. Immediate high, then really upset stomach.
Witness these I saw recently on FB: “Be happy, so that when others look at you they will be happy too!!!” “Life is short. Kiss slowly, laugh insanely, love truly, and forgive quickly.” “Think positive, and positive things will happen.” “Sometimes you need to talk to a two year old just so you can understand life again.”
I guess I’m just not the inspirational quote type (I also feel the same way about pictures of cats on FB, no offense). And this initial sermonic tirade is not to diminish any of my FB friends for their tastes in postings, but rather to say that sometimes life is really hard to navigate, and I get suspicious at the thought of using little morsels of inspirational truth as the substantive material that guides our way.
Alas, it seems that the compilers of Holy Scripture may not agree with me. (Shocker.)
Because there are, in Holy Scripture as we know it, books we call Wisdom Literature. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, the Song of Songs and Job make up the canon of Wisdom Literature, and for the next few weeks we’ll be talking about the Proverbs, which is, in effect, kind of like a FB feed full of inspirational quotes.
When we look at a passage of scripture, it’s always helpful to look a literary, historical, and theological background, but that’s kind of hard with the Proverbs. We don’t know when it was written or by whom, and its theological framework seems a bit different than most other books of the Bible.
From a literary standpoint Proverbs is a list of sayings, rhetorical questions, confessions, imperatives, metaphors, puns, and poetry. It clearly has multiple sources and likely has some connection to Israel’s King Solomon, but it probably came out of a tradition for centuries in that part of the world, that of collecting and preserving wisdom sayings.
We do that too—with Aesop’s Fables and Mother Goose and FB feeds full of inspirational quotes. And every culture around the world does it, too. For the next four weeks we’ll be hearing a morality tale from different members of our congregation. This will illustrate the awesome diversity of this community, but it will also let us hear and perhaps even practice using the tool of morality teachings to help us learn spiritual lessons.
And using morality teachings to learn spiritual lessons, I’ve found, can make us uncomfortable. Why? Because we’re in church, we’re here to worship God, we’re not the kind of folks who say, “Oh, I don’t really need religion; I just try to live my life as a moral person!”
And morality tales are a different kind of scripture than stories about God or parables of Jesus. The lessons in the Proverbs ultimately point to God, but they are lessons fleshed out with commentary about human intellect and behavior. They assume a self-righting universe based on equity, justice, and piety. They are underscored by the conviction that there is an order to the world, a moral code, and living by such is the “right” way to live.
So before we cede morality teachings to folks who say things like, “I believe in being a good person,” or “I believe in Karma—what goes around comes around” and write such things off as irrelevant to genuine faith, I’m going to suggest we step back for a minute and see if we can stretch our spiritual muscles a bit to reclaim the morality tale as a spiritual exercise.
One way to do this is what we did every single week at AWANA. Anybody here ever go to AWANA? AWANA is an acronym that stands for Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed, an allusion to 2 Timothy 2:15. Anyway, AWANA is kind of like Brownies or Girls Scouts for the children of evangelical Christian parents. We’d go every week and play really fun games, we had cool uniforms, and we could earn badges by reciting memory verses. In an effort to earn many badges, I memorized a lot of Bible verses. And one of the first was this little two-verse morality saying from the book of Proverbs, chapter 3:5-6. Turn in your Bibles so you can see this great example of how the book of Proverbs is structured.
In chapter three you can get a sense of a common element of the book of Proverbs, where the sayings link Creator, humanity, and nature, and the mediator between all three is a character called Woman Wisdom. (As an aside, the Wisdom Literature of the Bible introduces us to a feminine side of God, whom we’ve come to see as functioning kind of like we understand the work of the Holy Spirit.) See how the chapter breaks down? 1-12 is a list of wise instruction; 13-20 is a wisdom poem; and 21-35 is another list of instruction. See how it works?
Our verses today are verses 5-6. Let’s see how good my memory is: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” Badge!
So there you have it, our focus wisdom saying, inspirational quote, morality tale from the Proverbs today. Trust in God all the time and everything will work out great! And…if you collect your badge and move on to the next memory verse, then you will not have allowed the spiritually formative work of this wisdom saying to settle in your heart.
Because these sayings are not like band aids you slap over a scrape. If they were, they wouldn’t help at all. They’d be like inspirational quotes on your FB feed that make you want to throw your computer out the window. Because trusting in God is hard, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t do it perfectly all the time. And even when I do summon the courage to trust in God, and even acknowledge God in as much as I can, I do not always feel that my paths are directed, that my way is straight, or that everything works out okay.
No, they are, as the wise people who collected these sayings in the first place knew, the assumption of a self-righting universe, a truth beyond ourselves, a standard that we hope for and cling to, even when our flawed human experience would indicate otherwise. Which is why this particular proverb is a good one with which to start, because it recommends that we trust, with all our hearts, in what we can’t see.
And, really, isn’t that at the very heart of what it means to practice our faith?
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. We Baptists don’t have a formal process for canonizing saints, but we certainly count many among our ranks. So on a Sunday like this when we’re claiming the inspiration and example of those who have gone before us, I thought it might be helpful to flesh out our morality tale today, to put hands and feet and personality to what it might mean to “trust in the Lord with all your heart.”
200 years ago Baptist missionaries landed for the first time in Rangoon, Burma. This began the Baptist tradition of missionary work around the world, a tradition that has birthed some amazing work, like what you heard a few weeks ago from Dr. Parajon working in Nicaragua.
What you might not know is the story of a radical living out of this proverb about trusting God that even made a Baptist presence in Rangoon a reality then and, even was the beginning of how this church came to have leaders like Mr. Oo, and a thriving Burmese congregation that meets every Sunday right here at 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon. So here’s the story of a Baptist saint, you could say, who modeled radical trust in God even when she didn’t know or even always experience God directing her path.
In 1812 a young, newly married couple boarded a ship in Massachusetts and set sail for India, where they planned to serve as Congregational missionaries. In the larger story of Protestant life since the Reformation, this young couple was right at the beginning of a wave of missionary zeal that began the tradition of sending folks to foreign lands to share the message of Jesus. Of course since then our worldview and idea of “missions” has changed, but Anne and Adoniram Judson set out with all true intention and faithful commitment to the work of God in far-off India.
Their trip, as you might expect, was long and hard. Apparently, they were bored a lot, so they read and studied their Bibles pretty intently over the course of the trip. Somehow in that process they decided that what they’d believed about baptism—that is, that infants are baptized, not adults—had been wrong, and they came to the conviction that baptism as adults was the scriptural way to go about things. In other words, they left Massachusetts as Congregationalists and landed in India as Baptists.
This presented a bit of a problem, as the Indian government had allowed them entry as Congregationalists, and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the Congregationalist mission society of Philadelphia had paid for their trip and support. Ann felt bad about it. In one of her first letters home (she wrote many amazing letters that you can read today), she addressed a friend: “Please don’t hate me, but I have become a Baptist.”
(How many of us have had to write that very same line??)
Arriving in India, Ann and Adoniram were rebaptized by one of the associates of William Carey, a British Baptist missionary in India, and Baptists in the United States scrambled to form a mission agency to take advantage of their sudden windfall of accidental Baptist missionaries overseas. But Adoniram and Ann were quickly ordered by the East India Company to leave India, and by chance—or by the direction of God in response to trust, you could say—they boarded the only ship in harbor ready to sail, a ship bound for Rangoon, Burma. They arrived in Rangoon July 13, 1813.
It wasn’t like Ann and Adoniram were the Billy Graham Crusade in Burma. They lived among the people, worked to learn their culture and language, and translated scripture into Burmese. They baptized a first Burmese member of their church six years after they arrived in Rangoon. As Adoniram was imprisoned for several years because of political unrest, Ann carried on much of their work alone. She became part of the culture, adopting Burmese traditional dress, and forming a society of Burmese women, started offering women education and empowerment in the name of Jesus. She died at age 37, leaving a legacy of radical trust in God. She wrote: “‘Direct me in Thy service, and I ask no more. I would not choose my position of work, or place of labor. Only let me know Thy will, and I will readily comply.’ Which, could be just a personal expression of something like… “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…”.
I guess that’s why we call them saints, even in our informal Baptist way. They are people who lived lives that flesh out these little nuggets of wisdom we find in places like the Proverbs. And today, as we celebrate All Saints, we fall in line behind them in this great cloud of witnesses, hanging on tight to the snippets of wisdom in our biblical morality tales, and daily taking on the considerable challenge of living lives that take these biblical truths from the annals of “inspirational quotes” to illustrated truth, lived out in real time. In your life, and mine. Amen.