I love it when a reading appears at just the right time. This one might become one of my favorite pieces of scripture. I find I’m engaged more often these days in conversations where I feel I have to speak up. Often I think, should I have bothered? Was it was a waste of time? Did I make things worse?
Do not answer a fool as his folly deserves, or you will grow like him yourself; Answer a fool as his folly deserves, or he will think himself wise. Proverbs 26: 4-5
I find it a challenge to know when to speak up and when to listen…and when to walk away. When do we ignore things that we don’t think are right? When do we engage? When do we start the conversation? When do we definitely not? I think we’ve all been in this predicament. Perhaps more so now than ever where it feels like we’re constantly feeling engaged and having to pick and choose what feels what often feels like battles. I feel like Jesus lived in really trying times. He must have felt the same way. Perhaps at some points, he struggled to get the words right too.
When are we meant to raise our voices and when do we listen? Sometimes our just listening allows other people to sort through their own thoughts and does more good than engaging. When do we walk away? And I’m pretty sure we’ve all made mistakes in the department of answering fools.
I found this piece of scripture to be the perfect answer to the question.
As we read this scripture, we realize that engaging with “fools” is a long standing struggle that, well, it seems no one has discovered a tried and true answer to the question of when to engage and when to walk away. There is no right answer, because we are apparently meant to seek this wisdom for ourselves. We are apparently meant to keep practicing and keep learning. Probably by making lots of mistakes in engaging with fools when we definitely should not have. Probably by making the mistake of stepping away when we wished to God we had spoken up or more firmly.
I believe this is how wisdom works. Through experience. There is no one tried and true way to light one’s own light of wisdom and truth. We have to seek it. By engaging and by listening and we have our wisdom books, the Bible, to help guide the way. Our community to engage and challenge one another. When we ground ourselves in the sacred texts, we can also study and learn by traveling with other seekers. We study the seekers who came before us and struggled. We engage with and explore with seekers in our own lives, perhaps finding wise teachers to help shed some light on our confusion.
There are so many ways to take in wisdom. Sometimes, we find wisdom in music and poetry and art. Wisdom comes when we sit in nature or sacred space. Wisdom comes through mistake after mistake after mistake.
I love it when the learning from untraditional and unexpected places. I read this earlier in the week. I had to stop to write it down (it was in relation to question of what is evil; and I am paraphrasing some):
Evil is ultimate greed. It is the desire to possess that which is rare and precious and beautiful. So much consuming greed that if one cannot possess what is rare and precious and beautiful, the person would rather destroy it than to allow someone else to possess it. And it is never enough. There is always more to possess. Evil never stops once you feed it and it can not create; it can only copy and destroy. It is unrestrained selfishness.
Good is its opposite: selflessness. “Ultimate Good, God head, can only be reached by totally forgetting the self.” Complete selflessness.
That’s pretty potent stuff. It comes from an unexpected place, a fantasy novelist I read as a child, Mercedes Lackey. I’m always concerned when anyone restricts reading or reading of specific books. Books that are “trash” or “silly” or even “dangerous”. There is much wisdom to be gained in all sorts of books. We learn to think about what is good and what is evil, what makes a good society, what makes a good leader. Books teach us to engage with others, familiar and the unfamiliar. Stories teach us how to be good friends and protectors. They begin to teach us about loss and grief. They teach us how and when to react, because there is no black and white answer. They teach us how to handle mistakes. They take what we find in the wisest of texts and turn it into something manageable, especially for children. We can never have enough stories.
One of the interesting parts of these particular books is that the kingdom is founded on this truth: “there is no one way”. Sounds a bit like a utopic America, except with magical horses and terrible monsters. Though there is a Queen, there is also a democratic council, well, for the good guys. And it’s all couched around a great story. A story that shows us the light and the dark sides of living.
As I reread these books, I see the deeper concepts within them. I am realizing how many big social issues were in these books that I read for fun and amusement. I still have not gotten over the death my favorite character; it gets me every time. Books share with us the universal challenges of living and dying and living in society.
You might never seek wisdom in a fantasy novel. It might not be your thing, but other books might be. Maybe a romance novel. You might seek wisdom in places I wouldn’t look. Seek your wisdom in your passions. Read and study and practice what brings you deepest joy. There is wisdom in the most mundane of life.
We ground ourselves in the wisdom texts, the Bible, but it is through these other ways that we grow our own unique light. We learn what our true voice is and we become brave enough to make mistakes again and again. This is a good time to remind ourselves, that mistakes are okay. It seems from our reading that we are meant to make mistakes. We are meant to learn by doing. Again, we believe in a loving and forgiving God. Perhaps this scripture is to remind us of that too. God knows we’re going to make mistakes in getting this one right.
The Wisdom teachers have been chewing on this for the centuries. Here’s a quote from Hildegard of Bingen that brings this piece of scripture to a new light. “We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by other. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”
We can not live in a world that is interpreted for us. In that world, it would be impossible to find our own voice. There would be no point in listening, because there would be nothing new to listen to. We wouldn’t have answers to seek, someone would be feeding them to us. There would be lights, but they would be dull. We, each of us, in our own wisdom create a world of unique and creative lights. We each have a duty to shine up our own lights and help to shine the lights of others.
This scripture, helps us to learn to shine up others lights and our own. This scripture remains us to be careful in both our speech and our silence.
Wisdom. There is big, universal wisdom and it is learned through the small day to day wisdoms. To engage or not to engage with fools. To leave them in the dark or tangle with the dark.
When we think we’re strong enough to tangle with fools, it is wise to look within first. What is our reaction to the fool? Our own reaction tells us if they’ve struck a chord we can not work through. If we are not able to be (mostly) calm and impartial, we can not engage without risking becoming fools. Knowing and becoming intimate with our own chords first will tell us if we can engage wisely or not. And sometimes, it’s just okay to make a mistake and learn.
There are no right answers that fit everyone. If there were, this scripture would tell us exactly what to do. We each of us must become seekers of wisdom. We must light our own lights. God will help. The Bible, despite or perhaps because of this awesome piece of scripture, can be a perfect place to start. Without easy answers, the journey of the seeker begins. And once we begin God and Spirit is there to guide us…often in the most unexpected ways.
Loving God, be with us as we walk the world this week. Help us to know when our lights are strong enough to engage with wisdom. Let your gentle hand guide us when we seek to do good and help us to walk the path that Jesus showed us. Through your Grace, that even though we make mistakes and find ourselves lost and confused, let us know that you are always with us. Remind us that Spirit comes in unexpected ways and so long as we seek you in each moment, our lights will grow stronger in wisdom.
Photo Credit: Photo by Abby Kihano