On this first day of the Sunday school year, after much work has gone into recruiting teachers, planning for the year ahead, and teachers have begun their work, I guess it’s OK if we finally break out the fine print. The New Testament reading for the day just so happens to be James chapter three, whose opening words are most likely not a part of any pitch that Christian Education committees around the world give for potential teachers. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” For those who have already signed the dotted line, we thank you sincerely. But there’s no going back now.
A little further down in the fine print are the words from the Hebrew Wisdom tradition which open the book of Ecclesiastes. In contrast to the exalted form of Woman Wisdom that we find in Proverbs, the Teacher, as he calls himself, of Ecclesiastes, is not taken by the mystical union with God that learning and the pursuit of Wisdom can bring about. “I, the Teacher, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted…. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Inspirational words from “The Teacher.”
Who still wants to teach? These readings are full of warnings and caution signs, putting doubt on the value of wisdom, and calling into question the work of teaching. Reading further in James chapter three, about the destructive power of the tongue, one could get the sense that any kind of speech, whether it be from a teacher to a student or a friend to a friend, is risky business. Reading further in Ecclesiastes one can get the impression that after all of his life studies, the one thing that this Teacher has learned to pass on to students would go something like this: Life is hard, and then you die. Sounds like a short class.
When we decided to carry this Wisdom theme for the month I hadn’t been planning on going in this direction today, but I want to talk some about the connections and tensions between Wisdom and teaching. Wisdom being this ever present, active and engaged teacher who, as Proverbs says, calls out from the streets and the gates of the city, and who is present in the little things of creation. And teaching being our difficult work of trying to listen to Wisdom, and passing along what we hear to others.
Those of you who have done this for a living know better than the rest of us the challenges and rewards of attempting to teach. I imagine you’ve experienced James’ words of being “judged with greater strictness” by parents or students who aren’t all that excited about how you are going about your work. And that you also judge yourselves with a fair amount of strictness in trying to figure out how to do your work well. And I imagine that there are time when you can sympathize with the words of The Teacher whose opening words are “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.…A generation goes, and a generation comes.”
There is a fairly simple diagram that I have found helpful that illustrates the elements of the life of the church. It’s a Venn Diagram, and there are three circles. One circle is worship – the ways that we express awe and wonder and lament and praise with God. Another circle is Community – the ways that we share life together. And the other circle is Mission – how we reach beyond ourselves with good news. Worship, Community, Mission. And the center point, where all these circles intersect, is Formation/Transformation. All of these things working together for this central reality of the church. Forming and Transforming people and communities is the central activity of the church. And the act of teaching, education, that we do, is right at that center. This is a key place where formation happens. Teaching is a great gift, and one of the titles of Jesus was the Great Teacher. We are formed by those who teach us.
For those who have ever found themselves in a teaching role, whether formally or informally, I’m going to offer that in the act of teaching, we always have two companions with us who don’t exactly see eye to eye, but who help us mature as teachers. One companion is Wisdom, this personified presence that speaks of that which is good and true and beautiful in the world. The other is The Teacher, the voice behind the book of Ecclesiastes, who through a lifetime of observation and reflection on all the facets of life, often reverts to a single word that seems to characterize the whole blasted thing: Vanity, Meaningless. Hevel, in Hebrew, which literally means a vapor, a mist, something without real substance. The Hebrew Wisdom tradition itself contains both of these voices, and they both continue to speak to those of us who have the gumption to put ourselves in the position of teachers.
Last week I tried to introduce the first of these companions. Wisdom has a life of its own and is imagined to be like a woman who has built a house and invites all who wish to enter to come in and learn. Proverbs 8:22 is the voice of Wisdom speaking and it says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of God’s acts of long ago.” She was the first of all God’s creations, there before anything else existed, and everything that follows in creation, every creative act of God, we could say every cluster of energy that exploded out of the Big Bang, has in it some form of wisdom.
The Wisdom of Solomon is one of these books that make up the apocrypha – not a part of the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament but still considered to represent the biblical tradition in many ways. It’s one of the books of Wisdom Literature and has the beautiful poem to wisdom in chapter 7 – “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of God’s goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls, and makes them friends of God, and prophets, for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.”
So Wisdom is this wonderful companion for the teacher. Or a better way of putting it would probably be that we are Wisdom’s companion. Wisdom is the great Teacher, already present in all things – already present in the creativity of our children, already present in the subject matter that we try and present, ready to bring us along in becoming friends of God and prophets. And we as the teacher are the ones who get to help this process along and be a partner with Wisdom.
That’s one companion, Wisdom, and then the other companion is this tricky booger that Ecclesiastes, also a part of the Wisdom tradition, calls The Teacher. Because The Teacher has been looking for Wisdom his whole life, been trying to pay attention and be observant and be one of those holy souls that Wisdom passes through, and he’s just not feeling it. It’s not coming together for him and he’s not going to pretend that he can understand any of this or that creation fits together in one beautiful cosmic work of art. So The Teacher says things like “I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” And he says things like “When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.” In an attempt to know deeply, and to pass on what he has learned to others, The Teacher confronts his own limitations, and often becomes bogged down in frustration, even, at times, despair. Some of the most constructive teaching he can offer is named in chapter 9, verses 7-10, where he basically says, that we should enjoy life while we can — eat, drink, wear nice clothes, and work hard at what you enjoy, because that’s about the best we can do in life.
One of the teachers I’ve had who reminds me of The Teacher of Ecclesiastes was a history professor at Eastern University. He was a brilliant guy, knew all sorts of things about history and had been teaching for quite a while, but it was pretty clear that at some point in his career he had become fairly disinterested in his subject. Somewhere along the way he seemed to have concluded that the more you know about history, the more bleak the future looks. One of the ways this showed up in the classroom was that he taught with a cynical, although rather humorous tone throughout all the lectures. Another way this showed up was that he was easily diverted from talking about history to talking about his favorite subject: cheeseburgers. He loved cheeseburgers and would describe in detail different cheeseburgers he had eaten at different places. He also had a way of connecting the telling of history with cheeseburgers. For example, in the 16th century Martin Luther and the Catholic Bishops could have gotten along a lot better together if they just could have sat down and talked things through while eating cheeseburgers. They both would have been a lot happier. Cheeseburgers, and the pleasure that they bring, were the bright light of hope in an otherwise tragic story.
There’s more nuance to Ecclesiastes, but it points toward something that Parker Palmer emphasizes. He’s a teacher himself, and works to train other teachers, and one of his books is called “The Courage to Teach.” And he says that every teacher must confront the tangles they run into with 1) their subject matter, and 2) their students. Both of these containing more complexity and challenges than any teacher can every completely figure out. He says, ““We must enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but also to serve our students well” (p. 2)
And then he goes on to say, which is really his main point and then what the rest of the book is about, that the third tangle confronting teachers is really themselves. The self of teacher. That teachers, ultimately, are offering themselves to their students and their subject matter, and that the journey of the teacher is really an inward journey, to maintain one’s interest in teaching, and ultimately, to nurture love. To let love triumph in us so that our love for our students and our love for our subjects, and, we could say, our love for God, becomes what we teach. He doesn’t put it this way, but we could say that these two companions of Wisdom and The Teacher also are about our own soul work. Our desire to become wise people, and the way that we deal with our limitations.
I want to come back to something that I think holds all these different pieces together and close with this – and that is this picture of Wisdom being present at the beginning of creation. As God creates, Wisdom is there. This place of creation is also the place where the one who teachers finds herself. It’s this Genesis One picture of hovering over the unformed stuff of the world, and then being there when formation begins to happen. Confronting the chaos of the deep waters, and partnering with God as the subject matter begins to take shape. And using language, the creative instrument of God, Let there be light, as a tool in this creative process. James three warns that language can be destructive, but we also know it can be constructive and a teacher looks for ways to communicate constructively, in a way that brings to life. And teaching becomes a partnership with God, a partnership with Wisdom in the ongoing process of creation.
We are grateful for those with the courage to teach. Here, and in the schools in our city, and a few that teach at home. We believe this is a great gift you are giving to us and an important way that you are letting God move through you. May you find companionship with Wisdom and The Teacher, and may you know God’s grace, extended to you, in your own formation.