Lake Itasca and the Good Life

IMG_3876Last weekend, I picked Grace up from camp in Bemidji, Minnesota, and we drove about 45 minutes south west, following the Mississippi River to its source. At Bemidji, the Mississippi is a river, though barely. It is narrow enough that I could chuck a rock across if I wanted to. It meanders rather than flows. But at the headwaters, at Lake Itasca, the mighty Mississippi is little more than a stream. It is a tiny little trickle, barely covering our toes. With a sandy bottom covered in tiny pebbles, itty bitty minnows nibbled our feet as we waded downstream. A few hundred yards later, we were ready to get out, as the waters quickly began to get deeper. By the time we hauled ourselves out at the bridge, the water was high enough that Elinor could not have stood in it. We were soaked to our waists, and ready for ice cream. But as we left, we crossed the Mississippi several more times. After just a few miles, it had grown to a sizable creek. By the time we reached St. Cloud 150 miles south, the river was wide enough to require a large bridge, and had an island in the middle. By the Twin Cities, the river is much wider, spanned by several bridges and bordered by levees and walls to help with the yearly flooding. And of course, by the time it reaches here, where it is joined by the Missouri River, the Mississippi is nearly a mile wide. By the time it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, over 2300 miles from where it starts, the Mississippi gets to over 200 feet deep, and drops 1475 feet in elevation. It sheds water from 41% of the continental US, including 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces. All starting with a tiny creek barely 15 feet wide, not even three feet deep. The headwaters.

This introduction to the Book of Proverbs tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” In Hebrew it is closer “the source of knowledge;” one might say, “The fear of the Lord is the headwaters of knowledge.” There are a lot of sayings, proverbs if you will, about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. For instance, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it into a fruit salad.” You can google ‘knowledge versus wisdom’ if you want to be bombarded with these sayings. Frankly, some of them are better than others. But the Scriptures make less of a distinction between the two. At least in the portions that we will be reading over the next few weeks in our series on Old Testament Wisdom and Poetry. We will read this month from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, three books traditionally attributed to King Solomon. In fact, you probably noticed at the beginning of today’s reading, the first verses of the book of Proverbs gives Solomon, son of David, as the author. The rabbis once taught that Solomon wrote the love poetry of the Song of Solomon in his impetuous youth, the thoughtful teachings of Proverbs in his seasoned middle age, and the more jaded Ecclesiastes in his disillusioned old age.

Of course, modern scholars have determined that these books were not literally written by Solomon himself. They are more likely collections of bits of wisdom and poetry written by a wide variety of authors, over the course of decades, maybe even centuries. They were pulled together long after Solomon’s time, gathered into one book, and edited for something like continuity. Although if you ever tried to read any of them straight through, especially Proverbs, you would be decidedly disappointed in the narrative drive. Because there isn’t any. But that’s okay. That’s not the point of these books. They’re not here to tell a story. They have another purpose. And for that purpose, attributing them to Solomon actually works pretty nicely. Because the purpose of these books, perhaps a better title for our 4-week sermon series this month, is Living the Good Life.

And the key verse to living the good life is right up front. The first seven verses of the book of Proverbs could almost be taken as one long sentence. One long run-on sentence that your high school English teacher would have busted you down to a C- for writing in any of his papers. Still, who’s going to argue with King Solomon? He can write a run-on sentence if he wants. Scholars actually believe these seven verses were written by the editor of this scroll when it was first pulled together. And what it says here in these seven verses, by way of introduction to the entire book of Proverbs, is that if you want to learn about wisdom and instruction,
if you want to understand words of insight,
if you want to gain instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
or to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young —
and don’t get the idea that anyone is exempt from this work,
because the wise also need to hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
everyone needs to know how to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.

In other words, if you want to live the good life, whether you are already well along in years, already learned and wise, or whether you are just starting out, The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; The fear of the Lord is the place to start. The fear of the Lord turns plain old knowledge into wisdom, into the good life. The 10 Commandments are this kind of knowledge. God’s gift of instruction to help us learn how to live a good life. And it’s interesting to note that Martin Luther began his explanations to each of the 10 Commandments by saying “We are to fear and love God so that…” We are to fear and love God so that we put God’s ways first; we are to fear and love God so that we put our neighbors needs before our own; we are to fear and love God so that we conduct ourselves wisely. We are to fear God because that means that we fear nothing else. Wherever our fear resides, that is what will control us. Whatever we fear, we will obey. Whatever we fear will become our god. Our lives will flow out of what we fear. So if we fear the Lord, the one who has created us and loved us and come into the world for our sakes, that is who we will obey. That is where our lives will begin. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

The fear of the Lord is the headwaters of the good life. It is the starting point. Out of that flows the wisdom and justice and righteousness that make for a stream that will grow in our lives to create something strong and beautiful and life-giving. And standing there, looking at the pebbles at the bottom of that stream that eventually grows into the mighty Mississippi, while the minnows swam around our toes, I got a sense of what that fear of the Lord means. It’s not the same fear that I have of heights, or a fear of getting injured, or even a fear of being judged. I suppose there is some of that kind of fear, the visceral fear for safety. Certainly once that stream has become a mighty river, there is fear to be had. The current can sweep you away, the river can be dangerous and overwhelming. But it is not only fear, not in that way. There is also awe. Wonder. A sense of admiration, fascination, and a bit of surprise that the same river I’ve met in New Orleans and Memphis and St. Louis and St. Paul could be this quiet little spot, where the dragonflies buzz, where even a canoe or a kayak would be too large for the depth. But in with that sense of wonder mixed with fear mixed with awe, there is a sense of mystery. A sense that there is something at work in the universe that is much bigger and stronger and more all-encompassing than I am. A glimmer of the notion that, even if I can wade in it now, I won’t be able to control it ever. Not here, at the beginning, and certainly not further along the way. It is a feeling that lands, not in my head, not in clear-cut words that can be created as dogma or creeds, but as a visceral feeling, that resides in my gut, that is a knowledge that isn’t entirely knowable, a wisdom that goes beyond proverbs and platitudes, an understanding that works its way into the bones, that God is God, and I am not. Standing at the headwaters of a mighty river that feeds and is fed by most of a continent, it becomes clear that the fear of the Lord is the source of the good life. Because the fear of the Lord is recognizing that God is in control, God is moving all things toward God’s promised and preferred future, and even the smallest things, even the minnows in the headwaters and the pebbles under our feet are a part of that work. It is giving ourselves entirely to the flow of God’s river, not allowing ourselves to be drawn off course by the temptations of firmer ground, the promises of security on shore, or the need to drive faster than God’s current will allow. It is knowing that the good life is lived in the flow of God’s wisdom, even when that wisdom seems like foolishness to humans, as it so often does.

And all of life is found in that stream. Everything. The beauty of these books of Wisdom is that in them we find God’s hand at work in everything. In every little thing. The proverbs cover every aspect of life, from cradle to grave. Not just the mighty and powerful lives of kings, not just the wealthy and opulent lives of the rich, or the preening and lavish lives of the famous. Ordinary lives. The lives of parents and children, the lives of husbands and wives, the lives of young and old. Your life. Like the stream of the Mississippi growing into a mighty flood, branching and breaking and coming back together in the deltas and bayous, the stream of God’s wisdom, of God’s loving care for every aspect of your life, becomes visible for all to see. This kind of wisdom is evident to everyone. It is right there, for everyone to see, in a life lived for others, in a life lived in love and awe and wonder and joy, even in the midst of hardship, in a life lived without fear of anything but God, and it sweeps others along in its tide, carrying them into the life of God, even as it grows you and nourishes you. Sometimes, there are droughts. Times when you run up on a sand bar and can’t find your way back into the stream. And yet the stream is always there, always flowing out from its source, always seeking a way to draw you back in, and to carry you forward, washing away the muck and the weariness of living, pointing you downstream, into God’s good life.

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