Proverbs | Wisdom for changing times

Divine wisdom is found in liminal spaces: and is confident, creative and relational. (Listen.)

I have a confession to make. For a pastor, it’s a biggie, and it’s this: I don’t know where the church is headed. When Sanctuary began, we had a pretty clear path: gather up hungry people and establish regular habits of all-age worship and meals so that they could be fed: a program described behind my back as ‘boot camp’. But then the pandemic hit and two years of lockdowns—a third of our life together—blew everything out of the water.

Now lockdown’s over and, even though we can meet in person again, everything has changed. Regulars have disappeared; newbies have turned up; and geography has become less relevant than ever. We have people joining us on Zoom who live a thousand k’s away; people from other places seeking pastoral counsel; and hundreds of online readers.

Meanwhile, many local ‘regulars’ have lost the rhythm of weekly gatherings; family patterns have been changed forever by the pandemic; and we have a rolling population of sick people. We used to hold weekly face-to-face gatherings followed by a meal; but there is no longer interest or capacity for this. However we meet—in person or online—attendance is languishing and any sense of momentum has evaporated. So I find myself wondering more and more: What is church? What is my role? Where are we headed? And I don’t know the answers.

If the lockdowns taught me anything, it was this: Hold everything lightly—because it’s going to be scuppered anyway. So right now, I have no five-year plan, no corporate mission statement, no clear goals. I can’t even say with certainty what church will look like in six months, let alone five years’ time; although I assume some combination of online and face-to-face gatherings. But I do know this: we’re not going back to how things were. Those times are gone. And as much as people like to pretend otherwise, this is as true for the wider church in the West as it is for the people of Sanctuary.

Some years ago, the theologian Phyllis Tickle came up with a wonderful metaphor. She wrote that, once every five hundred years or so, the church has an enormous garage sale where it clears out the attics and chucks all the out-of-date, harmful and broken stuff.  The last time it happened, we called it the reformation; we’re in the middle of the next one now. We don’t know what the future church will look like, but we do know that many of the forms, habits, privileges and assumptions of the institutional church are headed for the dumpster.

Of course, there’s lots of kicking and screaming from those who are clinging to the buildings and the clutter; and who are trying to protect the skeletons in the closet and the patriarchal power and Aunt Mabel’s ugly tea set. But others of us know that the clean out is long overdue; in fact, it can’t happen fast enough.

Over the years, as I’ve reflected on this great paradigm shift which is happening all around us, I’ve often thought of Sanctuary as a bridge. That is, we are a gathering of people who could no longer tolerate the old, or who had been shown the door by more traditional churches. Some of us are LGBTIQA+; many of us are autistic; most of us are questioners or seekers or doubters of some sort, unable to accept the arrogance of Christendom or the certainties of the past.

As a body, we reject many of the assumptions that much of the Western church still holds. We don’t think the Bible dropped from the sky, perfectly infallible; instead, we believe it’s a human response to God. We don’t interpret it literally or factually, but metaphorically and relationally; and we don’t focus on knowing the right things to get a ticket to the afterlife, but on being transformed in this life now through loving relationship with God. And so the way that we are Christian and our questions and our struggles can seem at odds with the wider church.

On the other hand, many of the adults in this congregation were shaped by more traditional ways and teachings, and much of what we do, both positively and negatively, is in response to this formation. So we’re not quite free of the old, and we’re not quite the new, either. Instead, we’re a bridge to the new, and perhaps the next generation, or the next, will forge the new after we are gone.

In other words, Sanctuary inhabits a liminal space (‘liminal’, from the Latin for ‘threshold’), and this has only gotten more obvious post-lockdown. It’s a space where the old isn’t entirely dead, and the new hasn’t quite arrived. It’s a space of thresholds, of crossroads, of not-knowing and vulnerability. It’s an uncertain, uncomfortable, anxiety-producing space, and, as it was for the wilderness-wandering Israelites, there’s no clear way ahead. So some leave and others grumble, nagged by questions like: Where are we going? What’s the five-year plan? Why can’t we go back to how things were? And why are we still eating this stupid old bread? And sometimes the grumbling questioner is me.

In such a space, the temptation for leaders is to act too quickly; to cast a clear vision and outline a ten-point plan, then charge off in the wrong direction. As a pastor, this approach can be pretty attractive: because then I’d look like a competent leader who is Doing Something. Galvanizing the people. Collecting contributions. Constructing a golden calf. Making God simpler and making it easier to worship the wrong things in more convenient ways.

Yet I think it’s more faithful, more long-term fruitful, to sit in the liminal space looking a bit useless and letting the Bible and the prayers, the love and the companionship, and the quiet work of lying fallow, do their slow work. Because there is deep wisdom to be found here: the wisdom which emerges from vulnerability and not-knowing, the wisdom which brings fullness of life. We meet this wisdom in the book of Proverbs, chapter 8: ‘Doesn’t wisdom call, and doesn’t understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the doorways she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all earth’s children … I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently shall find me.’’ (Proverbs 8:1-4, 18).

Hear that? It is not in the arrogance of certainty or the comfort of tradition but on the mountaintops, at the crossroads, on the thresholds, in the liminal spaces, that Lady Wisdom is to be found: and if we love and seek her, we will find her.

Many of you already know this. You have discovered that wisdom emerges, not when things are going well, but in the disruptions, the bleakness, the in-between times. When the marriage is crumbling and you feel like you’ve betrayed your hopes and vows. When the kids have moved out and the house is suddenly, shockingly, empty. When someone has died leaving things unresolved. When the dream has come true and you realize it’s a false dream; when the issues are overwhelming but there seems no way forward. When the Christianity of your childhood becomes too small, and you wonder if you ever had any faith at all.

It’s in these liminal spaces, where the old has died and the new has not yet emerged, that true wisdom is to be found.

This points to the nature of Biblical wisdom. Many in the wider church read scripture for information and right belief, but scripture itself invites us to seek wisdom. This Hebrew concept isn’t limited to ideas or the intellect; nor is it reduced to information or rules or dogma. Instead, she—for Biblical wisdom is a ‘she’—includes hand and heart, work and love; she’s a creative and relational expression of the image of God. As we see in Proverbs, she’s a brazen woman who calls out in public spaces and proclaims her own gifts. She’s the first act of creation and she works beside God as a skilled artisan; she is daily God’s delight; and she rejoices in God, in the created order, and in all humanity (Prov. 8:30-31).

And so, in the liminal spaces of life, in the in-between times, those who love and seek wisdom are not promised tidy answers, but something much richer: they will discover a good way to live. It’s a way which is confident and forthcoming, creative and relational; it’s a way which delights God and rejoices in God, people and planet.

I began by claiming that the old ways have come to an end, both for us and for the wider church. I went on to say that I don’t know where we’re headed, and I acknowledged that this can be a prickly, uncomfortable, even dangerous place to be. Let me now name what I do know.

First, the pandemic only made more evident what was already glaringly obvious to many of us: that the old ways and institutions have not served many folk well; and that any model which prioritises ‘right’ belief over loving relationship, or which prioritises men over women, adults over children, straight people over gay people, priests over other people, property over justice, corporate mentality over Biblical wisdom, or past over future, is not Christlike or loving or wise. And so, even as the institutional church is crumbling and, just as they have been for decades, people are leaving in droves, I am confident that we are not called to prop up or defend the old ways or institutions.

Instead, I suggest, our call is to love and seek wisdom: and we will find her in the liminal spaces. So let’s not be afraid of the crisis, the crossroads, the not-knowing; let’s not deny these strange and uncertain times. Instead, let’s haul out the garbage, and then, at the threshold, pause. There’s no rush to refurbish or fill the house again. Instead, let’s take our time, and look around, and seek out our Lady.

That is, let’s look for wisdom’s qualities. Let’s look for the skill of the artisan, and the passion for creation. Let’s be attentive to and cherish the earth; let’s be attentive to and cherish *all* people, not just the approved insiders. And because wisdom takes delight in things, let us listen for the sounds of rejoicing, the cackle of laughter, the thread of song: for these, too, are the hallmarks of wisdom; these, too, will point us on our way.

My friends, the old certainties are gone; a new and bigger way is yet to be fully revealed. Despite the discomfort, whether we’re in this in-between space for a year or a lifetime, I encourage you to bring to our time here curiosity, and to open yourself to joy. Because when you get right down to it, for all the surface glitter, competence is overrated, certainty is boring, golden calves are tacky and dogma is dead. It’s the questions that are interesting; it’s the wrestling which brings life; and at the end of the day, I can’t imagine anyplace we’d really rather be than rejoicing with Lady Wisdom, and basking in God’s holy delight. Thanks be to the One who dances in all creation: Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen. Ω

Reflect: What do you see being hauled out to the kerb? In a world of uncertainty, what remains constant for the church? Where might wisdom’s passion for creation and all people (not just ‘insiders’) lead us?

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Proverbs 8:1-4, (18), 22-31 given to Sanctuary on 12 June 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (Year C Trinity). Curiosity piqued? For further reading, see The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg (2003); The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle (2008); How the Bible Actually Works, by Pete Enns (2019); or How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, by Susan Beaumont (2019).


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