July 4, 2007

Never Stop Learning

The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly. Proverbs 15:14

I have a dear ministerial colleague who years ago ambled home on his collegiate spring break, eager to tell his family all the fascinating facts he was learning about the scriptures while earning his liberal arts degree. Visibly threatened by his progeny's new-fangled education, his grandfather protested loudly: "I don't need to know all that stuff. If the King James Bible was good enough for Paul, it's good enough for me!" Nice try, gramps.

I'm always just a little sadder when someone pits Christian faith against education and learning. To be clear, no one is suggesting that salvation can be found in knowledge alone (We're not Gnostics.); neither is anyone one endorsing a kind of "education" that simply goes around debunking faith for the sheer fun on of it. (We're not cynics.) But the attitude that all learning is a de facto threat to our Christ-faith—that's a position born mostly of fear, not of faith.

This summer, we're preaching our way through the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Of the many threads of wisdom running through this inspired collection of sayings, one of them is this: The wise believer is eager to learn, "to seek knowledge," to grow not only in heart but also in mind. Foolish persons are satisfied with "folly," with whatever pedestrian madness is in vogue on this day or that. But the wise one is hungry to learn, to know more, to scratch the surface of things, and to dig a little deeper. And note that this hunger is not in spite of faith, it is because of faith: If God has made the world, then there is an order and purpose to things, and the wise person searches to know and understand that blessed order better. The president of my Christian liberal arts college used to say in chapel that we should use our minds to inquire deeply into all things, precisely because we are Christians. We should strive to learn in the confidence that "there was no rock we could turn over from which something would surface and devour God."

An intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. — Proverbs 18:15

One of the features I most enjoy about the gospels' accounts of Jesus' ministry is how Jesus seems always one step ahead of his disciples. He is frequently leading them somewhere (Mark 9:2), usually leaving them with more questions than answers (Matthew 13:13), and often tuned in to realities they have not yet perceived (John 20:14). While Jesus is much more than a teacher (Messiah, Lord, Beloved of God, etc.) he is no less than a teacher, and a consummate one at that. He is always out ahead of his disciples, teaching them faith, hope, and love in the Father. The gospels make it clear that one cannot be a follower of Jesus and stay in the same place.

Indeed, long before disciple took on extra Christian weight, it simply meant student, or one who receives instruction from another. Thus to follow Jesus throughout our lives is to not only believe in him as Lord but also to learn from him as teacher—to grow in understanding, maturity, and insight. Although sin is surely a sign we are off of the Jesus-path, so perhaps is boredom. Christ not only saves our soul, he also renews our minds (Romans 12:2). One who follows him to the Father is promised "speech and knowledge of every kind" (1 Corinthians 1:4-7).

A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for one who understands. — Proverbs 14:6

A few weeks ago, one of our senior church members bounced into my study and, with the giddiness of schoolgirl, announced that she had "just finished the most marvelous book!" You could hear in her telling her joy concerning all the new insights and fresh thoughts that this book had disclosed to her. I was deeply moved: It was clear that one is never too old (or young!) to keep asking and learning, seeking and finding. Although our Christ-faith should satisfy our deepest hungers for salvation, it should also make us hungrier to learn, to see, to know. Saying "yes" to Christ is only the glorious beginning to a lifetime of new insights about the ways of God's world, the ways of God's people, and the ways of God.

Presbyterians, I urge you: keep reading, keep wondering, keep learning for as long as you live. Don't have much time? Read and ponder and learn when you can, where you can. Small bites are better than no bites at all. Devour the scriptures (Revelation 10:9) and hold them in your mind as you ingest others bits of wisdom along the way. Keep looking to learn all you can, until at last in a time still to come, what we see now only dimly will be made clear as we see face-to-face (1 Corinthians 13:12). The old hymn O Word of God Incarnate prays for us all:

O make Your church, dear Savior,
A lamp of purest gold
To bear before the nations
Your true light, as of old;
O teach Your wandering pilgrims
By this our path to trace,
Till, clouds and storms thus ended,
We see You face to face.