Updated: Aug 31, 2021
When I was in my 20s, just starting out in life, this little book made a big difference in my life: It’s A Measure of Our Success by Marian Wright Edelman. Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and long-time director of the Children’s Defense Fund. She has made the well-being of children – in this nation, around the world, in communities, and in families – her life’s work – because, as she says, children are “God’s presence, promise, and hope for humankind.”
This book... is a letter to her own children... to her sons as they reached adulthood. As her eldest son Joshua was nearing his 21st birthday, Dr. Edelman wondered what she could give her sons on the threshold of their adulthood. She worried that in the press of work and family, in her advocacy for all children, in the hubbub of getting kids to school and baseball games, she might not have conveyed clearly enough – specifically enough – the things that mattered most – she might not have said out loud to them what sustained her most from day to day. And as she pondered that, she heard the voices of her parents – the lessons they had shared, the songs they had sung, the example they had set – a daily presence guiding her through her life.
And so, Dr. Edelman took what mattered most to her, the lessons she had learned along the way (from her parents and in her life), and she wrote a letter to her sons that became this book. Her “Twenty-Five Lessons in Life” include the following:
o “Service is the rent you pay for living.” Service – serving others – “is the very purpose in life, and not something you do in your spare time.”
o “Sell the shadow for the substance”
o “Slow down and live”
o “Be a can-do, will-try person”
o And my favorite – which I think I’ve shared with you before – “Assign yourself.” Don’t wait for the world or someone else to give you the work that is yours to do – the life that is yours to life. “Assign yourself.”
Marian Wright Edelman took what she had learned along the way – what she had learned from her parents, what she has learned facing the hard things in life, what she has learned working for the well-being of the vulnerable too-often harmed by systems that oppress – and she wrote it down. She wrote it down and gave it to her sons – or as she says – “a letter to my children and yours” – a gift from one generation to the next.
We find Wisdom like that in the book of Proverbs. We find that desire of one generation to take what they have learned and offer it up – for whomever might need it – so that those who follow won’t have to start from scratch. We see that deep longing in this morning’s Scripture: “My child, here’s what I’ve learned – bind it around your neck, write these things on the tablet of your heart. Wisdom is a tree of life, long life is in her right hand, and all her paths are peace. Let these things be life for your soul, and your sleep will be sweet.”
One scholar says that every culture does this, “every healthy society hands on its wisdom to the next generation,” calling it “this circle of life and learning.” Handing on – as best they can – what they have learned – the ways of living that they have found lead to more life.
Last Sunday, we talked about the human experience of not-knowing – of living life and reaching the limits of our current knowledge and understanding – and of having the presence to stop and say, “I just don’t know.” That, we said, is the beginning of wisdom, but it’s not the end. That act of healthy humility – saying “I know not” – clears the decks – helps us find our proper place in the world – and sets us on the path of learning.
What Wisdom then says to us is that we are not alone. We are not alone – and we are not the first – not the first to live this life and come to a point of not knowing – and we’re not the last. And God is always there. We start at that point of not knowing in a community of learning – standing in a stream of generations – together, with God’s help – finding our way to life. That same scholar says, “Wisdom applies old truth to new situations because there is nothing new under the sun.”
Proverbs are one way that Wisdom does this. Here’s a formal explanation of what a proverb is: “A proverb is a concise statement of an apparent truth that has currency for the present moment.” Here’s an explanation I like a little better. My friend Talitha Aho (one of the pastors over at Montclair) says that proverbs are like these little gifts. We take what we have learned in life, and wrap it up in a little package, tie it with a bow, and we hand it on to the next generation, and they then unwrap it, when they need it, and put it to use as a blessing in their life and their world. This little wisdom gift.
My Dad taught me how to drive a car. A stick-shift car. It wasn’t easy. I wasn’t an easy student. There may have been raised voices. But on the other side of all that drama – I remember some of the things he said:
o “Keep your eyes on the road.” That may be obvious. But in days long before cell phones, he summed up the experience that when you are driving, where your eyes go, your car follows. Keep your eyes on the road.
o And one that I probably rolled my eyes at: “Never pass a semi going downhill.” I rolled my eyes, that is, until I tried to pass a semi-going downhill – in my 1983 Honda Civic – I passed it, and then pulled back into the truck’s lane and saw the semi getting larger and larger in my rearview mirror. And I went, “Oh. Yeah. NEVER pass a semi-going downhill.”
I think of the things I’ve learned from Janie Spahr – and the Janie-isms I have come to quote. My favorite: “I will not be bifurcated.” I didn’t even know what she meant when I first heard it. But I came to learn that – from a life time of being told to be something other than who she was – Janie had a clear response: “I will not be bifurcated.” Because it never works. It’s never healthy. It doesn’t help anyone. Wisdom. And now, whenever I get so much as a whiff that someone is about to ask me to be other than myself, the answer is easy: Nope. I will not be bifurcated. Let’s move along.
Last week, I was talking with Yolanda Norton, and asked her – my biblical scholar friend – what she thought about wisdom. Citing David Carr, she said that the Wisdom we find in the Old Testament – is life wisdom that is a response to trauma – trauma of a people who have been enslaved, and centuries later taken into exile, and then returned home to a desolated land. There are, what she calls, three generations of this Wisdom in response to this trauma:
o First, there is the Wisdom we find in the Book of Job – Why God, why!?!? That whole-body, gut response to the inexplicable suffering and hardship of life.
o The Second Generation of wisdom is like we find in Ecclesiastes (like we read yesterday at Bob Houston’s memorial service) – a sober reflection on life that acknowledges all we don’t and can’t know, that asks, “What is the meaning of all this?” and that begins to ground itself in the meaning we find and give to the life we live in the present moment.
o And then there is the Third Generation of Wisdom, like we find in the Proverbs. In response to trauma, a generation works to assemble and articulate what they have learned – lessons – encouragement – to the next generation so that they can survive – and thrive. “Here is abiding help I want to leave with you, that I hope will last long after I’m gone – so that you might live.”
Wisdom is always-active, engaged, inter-generational, community learning – as we seek together for ways of living that lead to more life – for this moment and then the next.
Now, what I just said, could be said of wisdom across cultures. But this is church, and we are talking about Scripture, so it’s fair – and important – to ask, “Where is God in this? Where is God in this Wisdom life?”
In the traditions of Hebrew and Christian Scripture, Wisdom sees God present in every part and moment of life. Wisdom is there from the beginning, in the way that God has created the world, the paths that lead to more life, God there to help us find the way. Within that world, we have agency – the capacity to choose, and to act, and to make meaning. We may see only in part; we may and will come to the point of not knowing, but we have the capacity to learn, in the presence and the power of God, dwelling with us in wisdom.
Wisdom is then both a gift and a task – a gift of God’s presence in life – and a task – our ongoing work of reflection and conversation and living lives of meaning. One writer says it like this: Wisdom is “learning to live optimally in a world we find only partially understandable.”
This wisdom we’ve been talking about – and particularly this type of wisdom that is communicated from generation to generation – it comes to us as a gift – from God and those who have come before. And, it is ours to unpack – ours to open up, and apply to our life, and live into meaning. It is ours to fit the wisdom we receive to the lives we live, and to then birth into our life new wisdom for the living of our day.
So I know one bit of wisdom that I’ve already quoted is “Assign yourself.” But I have an assignment for you, for us, an invitation.
This week, I invite you to think some about the wisdom that has helped make you who you are today – the wisdom that has shaped your life – the ways of living that have brought you here to this moment. How has God been at work in you through the wisdom of others? And who are they?
In this sermon and in the children's sermon, I’ve shared wisdom from Marian Wright Edelman, my Mom, my Dad, Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr, Rev. Talitha Aho, Professor Yolanda Norton, and the Bible.
Think specifically. Who has handed to you Wisdom that has sustained you along the way – in love? What are the lessons you have received?
And then: Reflect on the lessons you have learned along the way – the ways you have found that lead to more life (and maybe some ways you’ve discovered don’t lead to more life). What is the Wisdom that you embody – what’s the wisdom you have to share and pass along? Think specifically. Maybe just one or two. Write them down. And if you can, find a way to wrap that wisdom up and give it away as a gift. Write a letter. Maybe find a friend and exchange wisdom. Email it to me.
Now, I don’t assign anything in a sermon that I don’t assign to myself. So here’s an example. A bit of wisdom I have come to know in the life I am living. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are somehow less than. Be abundantly you. That’s a gift, and if you experience something of God’s love in that, and if there’s a way that it might come to life in your life, you are welcome to it.
I noticed this week that the Foreword to Marian Wright Edelman’s book was written by one of her sons. I don’t know how many times I’ve turned to this book, but I’ve never noticed that before. Her son Jonah writes this:
“My mother’s book is a written testament to her beliefs from which everyone, including myself can benefit. Many of her lessons for life strike a chord in me, but three in particular represent what I have come to see as the legacy of my ancestors:
1. Don’t feel entitled to anything you don’t sweat and struggle for.
2. Never give up. You can make it no matter what comes. Nothing worth having is ever achieved without struggle.
3. Always remember that you are never alone. You are loved unconditionally. There is nothing you can ever say or do that can take away my love or God’s love."
And then Dr. Edelman’s son writes this: “When I am feeling paralyzed by a task that seems too difficult, I remember the love that lies at the core of my family and their legacy to me. The love gives me strength, and I can move again.”
We can be a part of that. We stand in the stream of generations, drinking deeply from the wisdom of those who have gone before. We write that wisdom on our hearts. And then, nourished and sustained by the wisdom of the generations, in God’s abiding presence, we then bring to life in our bodies, in our life, in our world, wisdom that is at the same time ancient, timeless, and fresh – what we have learned along the way, together, as we are finding our way to life. And we hope, with God’s help, that we might leave to the generations who follow, and to the generations yet to come, a little help and maybe even, a world a little better than we found it.
© 2021 Scott Clark
 Marian Wright Edelman, The Measure of Our Success (New York: Harper Perennial ed., 1993).  Id. p. 11.  Id. pp. 17-18.  Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “The Book of Proverbs,” New Interpreters Bible Commentary, vol v (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), p.19  Id.  See Richard J. Clifford, S.J., “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” New Interpreters Bible Commentary, vol v (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997), p.8-9  Id. p.16.