Apprenticed to Wisdom

Proverbs 8:1–4, 22–31; John 16:12–15, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on June 12, 2022

Last weekend, I played in an orchestra for the first time since college. Alums of the St. Olaf orchestra gathered to honor our conductor, Steven Amundson, who is retiring. The experience felt so familiar, like a muscle memory—shared breaths before entrances; bowing in sync with other string players; the symphony of sound resonating in my body; the conductor’s vivid movements and his unique voice—bantering, coaching, storytelling. I realized how formational being in orchestra was for me. It taught me so much about so many things: music, of course, but also listening, community, shared work and cooperation, harmony, diversity . . .

Today’s text from Proverbs is an invitation to participate in wisdom. Woman wisdom gives a two-part speech. The first section makes it clear that wisdom is accessible and available. Wisdom is free and public. She dwells among ordinary people going about their everyday lives. “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” She’s up on the heights broadcasting her message. She’s meeting travelers on the way, guiding folks who find themselves at a crossroads, or before a portal. She’s advising at the gate, which, in the ancient communities, was the place where folks handled their business and worked out their legal affairs.

The second part of woman wisdom’s speech proclaims that wisdom permeates everything. Wisdom is embedded in the design of the world itself. God birthed wisdom before everything else in creation—before depths and springs, before mountains and hills, before earth, fields, and soil. Saying that wisdom came first is not really a statement about timing. It means that wisdom is the key principle that forms and shapes the world. Creation simply would not exist without wisdom.

Wisdom was there as God established order—putting in place the heavens, the sky, and the fountains of the deep, setting boundaries to contain the chaos of the sea. The ancient Hebrews did not view creation as a static, finished product. Creation is the ongoing, unfolding work of God in partnership with the earth. Our creating God continually calls us to work with fresh possibilities and to welcome new life. And wisdom is the linchpin in this process of evolution. There is an intrinsic wisdom woven into the world at both a micro and macro levels. This claim correlates with the simple observations of people paying attention, with indigenous knowledge and with the rigor of scientific inquiry. Creation is shaped by patterns—intricate, beautiful, efficient, and innovative. These patterns hold purpose and meaning. These patterns are not God, exactly. They are more like God’s tracks—tangible traces of divine presence.

I’m captivated by the story of Diana Beresford-Kroger. Her recently published book is To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. As a child Diana looked for every opportunity to learn about trees and plants. She was a brilliant student with a photographic memory. Traumatized by the emotional neglect of her parents, and orphaned by their deaths while she was still very young, she was chosen for a “wardship” by her mother’s relatives in Ireland. This meant she spent summers learning from an extraordinary community of elders who had preserved ancient Celtic knowledge in a place called the Lisheens valley. Along with the medicines of plants, her lessons encompassed a wide diversity of subjects—songs, poems and stories, the properties of different types of butter, caring for horses, Celtic ways of meditating, which helped her learn to process the pain of her life and care for herself. “I arrived in Lisheens” she remembers, 

in need of something to help hold me together just as the place itself was falling apart. The ancient knowledge of the Druids and the Brehon Laws, kept safe, refined, and handed down from one generation to the next for millennia, was on the verge of being lost. Instead it was given to me, an understanding of the healing powers of plants and the sacred nature of the natural world that remains the greatest gift I have ever received. (p. 11)

As a botanist and medical biochemist Diana uses the tools of science to more fully understand this gift of ancient knowledge. On their farm in Ontario, Diana and her husband nurture trees of many species. She tells the story of a willow she planted from a three-inch slip. When the tree was about twenty years old, she noticed its health was threatened by a row of holes in the trunk made by a small woodpecker called a sapsucker. She writes:

Rather than devise a way to drive off these birds . . . I watched and waited. Two weeks after the sapsuckers had done their work and eaten their fill, butterflies began to appear in great numbers at the holes. The interval had allowed the sap at the surface to crystallize. I realized the butterflies were there to have their own feed of sugar and also to enjoy electrolytes from the tree that they would have had no access to without the sapsuckers’ hard work. These electrolytes paint the colours into the butterflies’ wings. 

Already, I had been treated to a slow and beautiful dance, and when the butterflies departed, I saw that they left behind the music. The sapsuckers’ boreholes are the exact size of opening in which ichneumon wasps prefer to build their nests. The ichneumon is a parasitic wasp that keeps a variety of nasty pathogens out of a garden—a hugely beneficial insect. Nature is very forgiving in its way, but it can only be interfered with so much. Had I not followed the row of holes for the entire summer, I wouldn’t have understood their significance or have been treated to the full, enthralling chain. Had I gotten rid of the sapsuckers—as many gardeners would have rushed to do—I would have potentially lost the butterflies and wasps. (pp. 146–47)

It seems to me that wisdom’s role in creation resembles an apprenticeship: “I was beside God, like a master worker and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before the Holy One always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Wisdom’s invitation to us is to follow her example, to take up the posture of an apprentice, of a collaborator who learns by participating in the world. Notably, the most vital aspect of our apprenticeship is letting delight and joy shape our way of being in the world. Jesus identifies the Spirit as a key partner in our apprenticeship to wisdom. During his farewell address to the disciples, he assures them that there’s more to learn and they will still have a teacher after he is gone. The Spirit of truth is herself an apprentice, guiding by listening for and amplifying the voice of wisdom.

I think being apprenticed to the wisdom embedded in the world is a bit like playing in an orchestra. Specifically, it resembles the view from my humble perch in the back of the second violin section. We second violins don’t play the melody that often. We get the inner parts of the chords which, all by themselves, sound kind of weird. (Believe me, it makes practicing a bit of a chore.) We are not supposed to be the center of attention; our job is to humbly blend in. And yet we also have to take responsibility for learning our notes and counting our measures. I don’t have very good rhythm, which I am sure Byron has figured out by now. So counting mindfully and carefully is a particularly important duty for me. It’s very embarrassing to stick out in the wrong moment!

When the people of Lisheens determined that Diana had finished her wardship, the whole valley gathered around her. Mary Cronin, the prophet who came from a long line of people gifted with second sight, spoke about what she saw in Diana’s future.

“Diana, you have been given a sacred trust,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “We are old and can’t live forever. When we are gone, you will be the last voice of the ancient world of Ireland. There will be no more after you. . . . You’ve got to bring this information to the New World, Diana,” she said. “Across the ocean, people will one day crave the ancient knowledge and recognize it as the only way to save themselves and the world. . . . You just have to wait for them to be ready. You will know when they are.” (p.89)

I believe the time has come. We are ready now. We know how much we need wisdom in these days. This week, a child testified before Congress, detailing how she smeared herself with the blood of a friend and pretended to be dead in order to evade the shooter in her school. Our queer youth, especially transgender and non-binary youth, face an onslaught of hostility: exclusion from sports, harassment in school, and an epidemic of self-harm. Across our country, people are actively and effectively organizing to prevent our educators from telling the truth about systemic racism. Democracy itself is at risk, infested with treason and lies, paralyzed and polarized and barely able to function. And we are in a state of emergency when it comes to our climate.

Now is the time to humbly apprentice ourselves to the wisdom embedded in this world. Now is the time to learn who we are by studying the beautiful patterns of our intricate planet. Now is the time to take delight and find joy in partnering with God—the source of all creativity, newness, and life. Now is the time. We are ready.