Holy Spirit: Lady Wisdom?
Passage: Proverbs 1 and 31, excerpted
Date: April 15, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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Twenty-something years ago, when I was in seminary going through the care process of becoming ordained, I was meeting with the Presbytery committee that oversaw us ministerial candidates. They were examining me via my statement of faith, in which I had described God, who; Jesus, who; and the Holy Spirit, which. Well, there was this old guy on the committee who declared that in such writing I had committed the Arian heresy of not equating the three persons of the Trinity because God and Jesus were “whos” and the Holy Spirit was a “which.” I can only imagine what the gentleman would say now if I were to describe the Holy Spirit as a “she.” (It’s a wonder anyone gets ordained these days!)
Nowadays, if I had to assign a gender to the three persons of the Trinity, I would describe the Holy Spirit using feminine pronouns. I think of the Spirit as a life-giving, life-bearing force, as the presence of compassion and nurture, which in terms of our society tend to be attributes given to the female rather than male. That itself is a sexist statement, I admit; many men are compassionate and nurturing and life-giving. Language is limited, and all metaphors break down eventually.
So just to further complicate matters today, I’m going to throw out another idea, one which would probably have sent my candidates committee over the edge. It’s a wondering rather than a statement, an examination rather than an answer. Here’s the wondering: in the book of Proverbs, is the character of Lady Wisdom really the Holy Spirit in disguise?
Let me assure you I am by no means the first to ask this question. Others have proposed it and made a case for it, while others have torn the idea apart, thoroughly and orthodoxedly. But I would enjoy looking at this with you today, and I will say at the beginning that the end of this idea is something I’ll invite you to determine for yourselves.
Let’s start with the book of Proverbs. At first glance it is a collection of wisdom sayings, and it is that, but I think it’s more. A few years ago I did some continuing education with Dr. Christine Yoder, who teaches Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, and who at the time was working on her book about the Book of Proverbs. She proposed that rather than a book of sayings, Proverbs was rather a narrative about the king instructing his son on how to mature, how to grow up, and how to choose wisdom over foolishness.
In the introduction to the commentary she wrote, Dr. Yoder says this. “The book of Proverbs is for the ordinary of days. Proverb after proverb, page after page, it invites us into an ancient and ongoing conversation about what is good and wise and true in life. How can we discern right from wrong in a world of fiercely competing claims? What values do we treasure and why? What makes for strong families and just communities? What characterizes a good neighbor, loving partner, or trusted friend? How do we understand money, the role of integrity, and the power of speech? And how do we teach it all to our children?”(Yoder, Christine E. Proverbs: Abingdon Old Testament commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009.)
In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom, personified by a strong woman, shows up to help the characters do all those things: to discern right from wrong, to define values, to strengthen families and communities. To me, the Holy Spirit does the same things: the Spirit helps you and me, the Spirit empowers you and me to know right from wrong, to be courageous enough to define what we value and treasure; the Spirit strengthens our families and our communities.
That may or may not mean that Lady Wisdom is the Holy Spirit. Minds far brighter than mine have suggested that Wisdom is the highest attribute of the Holy Spirit but not the Spirit itself (himself? herself?). But in wrestling with this idea this week, and in thinking about my understanding of the Holy Spirit and remembering how the Holy Spirit has acted in my life, and in our communities, I have landed on this: the Spirit meets us not on mountaintops or in great epiphanies, but in the ordinariness of our lives.
On Thursday I led the memorial service for Chrissie Thomas, a member of our congregation who died on Good Friday. I’m sorry more of you didn’t know Chrissie, because she was extraordinary in many ways. Her son, Eric, was born with a very rare genetic disorder that has required that he be on life support for all of his 33 years. When Eric was a boy, the nursing agency that provided care for him informed Chrissie that they were shutting down and in two weeks, they would no longer provide nursing care for Eric. With help from family and friends, Chrissie established a nonprofit called Nursingale, which helps families with medically fragile children get access to the nursing care they need.
During the reception, a man I didn’t know came up and thanked me for the service. He told me that on Friday he would be going to another memorial where they expected a crowd of 14,000 to 15,000 people, where the speakers would talk about the many accomplishments of the deceased. But, this man said to me, all of you who spoke about Chrissie didn’t talk about her accomplishments – you talked about her relationships, about the people she knew and loved and helped and advocated for. He intimated that that was better – to remember relationships and love rather than accomplishments and accolades.
We most need God in the ordinariness of our lives. In its most basic sense, Chrissie was a mother who needed help. And she asked for it and received it and then offered help to others. I don’t know why all the people who helped her did that; I like to think that some of them were motivated by love and by faith; they knew what was the right thing to do, they knew what their values were; they knew what would make a strong family and a strong community. It’s as though the Holy Spirit was empowering them.
That’s why I included the verses from chapter 31in today’s reading. If you don’t know this already, know this now: many, many, many women I know have very strong feelings about Proverbs 31:10-29, and not positive ones. I’ve had my own journey with these verses, describing an impossible ideal, the Old Testament version of the Enjoli woman, bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan. And goodness knows these verses have been used to constrict and judge women.
When I read these verses now, I also see a woman who lives out wisdom and the teachings of faith. And she does that without asking permission from anyone. The opening words can be translated in many ways: “a capable wife,” “a good wife,”“a virtuous woman,” “a wife of noble character,” “a virtuous and capable wife.” But I think my favorite translation is “a woman of valor.”
The setting where women have historically shown valor is an ordinary one. It is not the battlefield; it is not the halls of government. In the world of the Old and New Testaments, in the world of western history, the valor of women has largely been ignored, because it is the valor of the ordinary.
Yet at the end of the book of Proverbs, a book about godly wisdom, it is the ordinary that is lifted up. Providing for the family; taking care of the vulnerable; creating fabric, buying food; laughing, teaching.
In the past few months, many women of valor in our congregation have died – Bonnie Hensley; Mary Jo Anderson; Lorraine Yoder; Sue Reif; Chrissie Thomas; Betty Fry. Each exhibited valor in her own way and in her ordinary, everyday life—in sharing talent, in helping others, in encouraging learning. We have been graced by these ladies of wisdom, and I miss the examples that they set for us.
And so I wonder this day, in the middle of a time when we’re looking at the Holy Spirit, if we might consider the work of the Spirit in the ordinariness of our lives. Do we see the Spirit helping us take care of our families and friends? Does the Spirit help us care for the vulnerable, for the hungry and the homeless, for the victims of war and violence, for the sick and the forgotten? Does the Spirit help us create and nurture?
I attempted to find some words by one of my favorite poets that would bring this somewhat rambling sermon to its brief and happy end, but being unsuccessful, I decided – or the Spirit prodded me, or Wisdom inspired me – to write my own.
To wake on a gray morning, wondering if it will rain during the dog’s walk
And if it does, to notice the daffodils anyway;
To make the coffee, to wake the child, to read the paper,
to give thanks for the smallest everyday things;
To go to work, to tip the waitress, to notice the man in such desperate need;
To dice the onion, to cook the rice, to serve the meal;
To read the book, to paint the picture, to call the friend;
To say, “sweet dreams,” to give thanks once moreas night falls:
This is Holy work; this is wise living; this is life in the Spirit.