Two Kinds of Wisdom: Speaking and Listening6th Sunday after Pentecost
One of my commitments within the Presbytery of Vancouver Island is to serve on the Visitation Committee, visiting each congregation on a 3-year rotation. The purpose of the visit is to listen to the Finance & Property Team, the Session, the Minister, and the congregation as a whole. The pastor, the Session members, and the Finance and Property team members fill out a questionnaire in advance. The Visitation Committee spends Saturday meeting individually with the Pastor, the Session, and the Finance Team inviting the groups to “tell us more” about what is going well, what are the challenges, and what is their future hope for the church.
The Visitation team attends worship the next day and meets with the congregation as a whole after worship. We listen to gain an understanding of the congregation’s perception of the church’s strengths, challenges, opportunities for ministry, and their vision for the future. The visit is supportive, with the intent of listening rather than speaking or analyzing, and to bless, affirm, and to hear where God is already leading.
Listening is a practice not often valued in a culture with an overabundance of speaking. Some of us may have taken courses during our educational process in Speech and Language, but I would guess that no one has ever received intentional instruction in listening.
Think about a conversation you’ve had during the last week. What do you remember? Did you pay attention to what the person was saying? Did you hear the feelings and the bigger story that is behind their words? I must admit that sometimes when I think I’m listening, a memory or insight is triggered that I can’t wait to share. I might also begin thinking about how I’m going to respond. When that happens, I have stopped listening.
Both Proverbs and James call us to faithful speaking and listening. Listening in the book of Proverbs is grounded in hearing the voice of God. How do we do that?
In Proverbs, Wisdom, a feminine noun in Hebrew, is depicted as a woman so eager to attract listeners that she raises her voice out in the streets, at the busiest corner, and at the city gates. But, no one is listening.
Wisdom grows impatient and wonders how long the people will remain ignorant. She knows the consequences of failing to listen. Those who haven’t listened “shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.” In other words, this is about natural consequences; we become a victim of our own devices and we create the world in our image.
Wisdom is a new call to listen to God and one another with a renewed purpose and intention, with a decreased need to speak, and an increased need to listen and to hear.
The book of James is considered the only wisdom book in the New Testament so it is fitting that we link the James and Proverbs scriptures. James understood that our speech creates what we think and believe about the world. And if we listen to public rhetoric, we understand how speech has the potential to divide families, communities, and nations.
James guides us to guard our speech. The epistle alerts us to the potential for using the tongue for good or for evil. In verses 3-4, two images are used to speak of a tongue. A “bit in the mouth” is a small tool whereby a horse is controlled and reined in. A “rudder” is a small implement with the capacity to steer a very large ship. The tongue, like bit and rudder, “is a small member” and has great power.
Then, James expands the metaphor. We are familiar with the destructive force of wildfires and with our responsibilities in both causing and controlling the spread. The image of fire is used to dramatize the unwise destructive capacity of the tongue when we misrepresent people and situations, when we demean others and promote only our own perspectives. What we talk about is the world we create.
The final pair of images suggests that the tongue reflects what is inside a person, that is, a person’s true character. The good spring will yield good drinkable water; the bad spring will give only brackish water. A plant can only grow its own kind of fruit, figs from fig trees, olives from olive trees, grapes from a vine. What we say discloses our true character and reveals or sometimes hides our true intention. The tongue is only as good as the heart guiding it.
The work of the Presbytery Visitation Team is to promote opportunities for the church to speak their truth with kindness and trust and to listen with greater purpose and intention. It is not about listening to the loudest voice or the one who speaks most often. In that we hear the voice of God in the collective voice of the church. New possibilities are discovered as we are led to describe the work of God within and among us.
James ends this chapter with these verses that were not in the earlier reading (James 3:13-18): Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.