Wisdom’s Cry

Sermon for Sunday, August 16, 2015 || Proper 15B || Proverbs 9:1-6

wisdomscryHomo sapiens. That’s what Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century biologist, called the human species. All living organisms in his influential system of taxonomy are given two Latin names, a genus and species. There’s Canis lupus – dog.* There’s Felis catus – cat. There’s Macropus rufus – red kangaroo. And then there’s Homo sapiens – modern day human. The “sapiens” distinguishes us from other extinct species of hominid like Homo habilis and Homo erectus. Carl Linnaeus used the word “sapiens” to describe our species because, like any good Enlightenment thinker, he prized the human abilities to gain and retain knowledge, to question and understand, to solve problems, and to discern. Sapiens, after all, comes from the Latin word that means “wisdom.”

I often wonder, however, if this scientific classification – Homo sapiens – is losing its accuracy in today’s world. Indeed, modern American society has become a hostile environment for wisdom. Wisdom thrives when deep thinkers share their deep thoughts with one another and discover new territory for exploration. Wisdom thrives when thoroughness and care gain the upper hand over speed and ease. Wisdom thrives when we take the time to listen to our grandparents. But in modern American society deep thinkers don’t have the luxury to share their deep thoughts because the 15-second sound byte is all that will get quoted by the news. The 140-character limit of a tweet serves only the surface level of a discussion. The fact that you all give me ten minutes a week to share what little wisdom I’ve gleaned in my 32 years on this planet is practically a marvel. It’s certainly countercultural. In today’s world, how could we possibly be expected to sit through ten minutes of anything?

And still, the brevity and pace of our modern discourse is only part of what makes our society a hostile environment for wisdom. Ever since the advent of the Internet, we have slowly but surely been outsourcing our brains into devices. And as the devices have gotten smaller and more portable, the pace of this outsourcing has accelerated.

Here’s a common example of cranial outsourcing, one that I’m sure many of you can relate to. I know exactly three phone numbers by heart: I know my cell phone number, Leah’s cell phone number, and the number for St. Mark’s. That’s it. I don’t know my parents’ phone numbers. I don’t know my sister’s phone number. I don’t know the numbers of any of my friends. But in the prehistoric, pre-cellular days of the late nineteen-eighties and nineties, I knew every one of my friends’ numbers by heart. I probably had 40 or 50 phone numbers crammed in my head. And so did everyone else. But we, as a species, have lost this capacity, because we have outsourced phone number collection to our devices.

This is one fairly innocuous example of cranial outsourcing. Others include the inability to calculate a tip at a restaurant; or to make change at a cash register; or, perhaps most ubiquitously, to drive somewhere without turn-by-turn GPS instructions. I have friends who have been to my house four or five times and have absolutely no idea how to get there. The Internet and related technology have given us the opportunity to download all of human knowledge and most of human capacity into machines. And we took that opportunity without even blinking.

The coupling of our sound-byte society with our cranial outsourcing has begun the process of evolving us into a new species, I’m afraid – one where the “sapiens” of Homo sapiens is a misnomer. While there are certainly still bastions of wisdom out there (notably, the aforementioned grandparents), I’m not sure generations to come can expect innate wisdom from their elders like we can. I’m honestly afraid my millennial generation has neither the attention span nor the cognitive discipline to gain wisdom. When knowledge, experience, and empathy are brewed together over time in an atmosphere of unhurried reflection, wisdom is the result. But these days, most knowledge lives in machines. Experience is gained second hand through the media. Empathy can barely survive in the toxic, anonymous climate of Internet comment sections. And too few things, reflection among them, are done in an unhurried manner.

So when I read the words of today’s lesson from the book of Proverbs, I hear a clear, yet plaintive cry from Wisdom herself calling us away from our modern American lifestyle; calling us, instead, back home. Indeed, the reading begins as such: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn seven pillars.” Seven pillars – a number of completion in the Bible, of divine perfection. In this house, Wisdom has laid a sumptuous feast and has sent out her servants with an invitation to be shouted from the rooftops. All you naïve people, she says; all you who lack sense, come here. Eat my bread, drink my wine. “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

The book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom throughout its chapters. She is called God’s first created being, there with God at the creation of all other things. She implores people to despise pride and arrogance and to embrace prudence, knowledge, discretion, righteousness, justice. She laments being roundly ignored by the foolhardy. Wisdom has been around the block a few times, and today she invites us again not to forget her, but to feast in her house. This is vital for our walks with God because so much of that walk with and toward God follows the road that leads to wisdom.

The Wisdom Road we could be walking has become obscured in our modern American society. But we can take steps to clear away the brush and brambles, to hack back the overhanging branches, to uncover the well-worn path so many have trudged along in days gone by.

The first step is to recognize the extent of our cranial outsourcing and try to arrest its growth. Reclaim some hard drive space in the old gray matter. Try not to use your turn-by-turn GPS for a week. Yes, you might get lost, but getting lost is how you start learning the roads. When you retrieve information from the Internet, try to keep it in your brain instead of letting it drift away back to virtual space.

Second, take the time to have some real, honest-to-goodness experiences, and then take even more time to reflect on them. Have some deep conversations. Discuss things that really matter. Go out and rub shoulders with folks you might not normally associate with. Get your hands dirty. Serve.

Third, practice empathy in every conversation and interaction you have. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your companion and feel what he or she is feeling. In all of these, spend time in reflection so that your knowledge and experience has time to grow roots and sprout into wisdom. Some of you are grandparents already, so I’m sure you’ve got wisdom to spare. Perhaps you can help us young `uns stop and hear wisdom’s invitation to the feast. The Wisdom Road and the road God calls us to walk share quite a bit of pavement. Let’s walk it together.

* It was pointed out to me (while I was preaching at the 10 am service) that this is actually a wolf and that dog is Canis familiaris. Oops.

Digital Disciple Chapter 5: Googling Prayer

After a midsummer hiatus, here’s the fifth in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in a little quiz about this video. We’ll pick a random winner from those who participate and he or she will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and one of the t-shirts that Adam wore in the video (again, not the actual shirt but one just like it). Check it out!

Digital Disciple Chapter 4: Empty Minds and Disposable Bodies

Here’s the fourth in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in a little quiz about this video. In a few days, we’ll pick a random winner from those who participate. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and a mystery T-shirt, since the one Adam wore in the video is a one of a kind that his then fiancee made him for Christmas because she is awesome.

Digital Disciple Chapter 2: From Connection to Communion

Here’s the second in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in a little game about this video. In a few days, we’ll pick a random winner from the first 23 players. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and a Battlestar Galactica t-shirt like the one Adam wore in the video! It could be you!

Digital Disciple Chapter 1: Virtual People

Here’s the first in a six part video series produced to accompany the book Digital Disciple. This video series is designed to be used in a class setting to introduce the material and spur discussion. Of course, watching it by yourself is fine too!

Don’t forget to head over to the Facebook page and participate in the quiz about the video. In a few days, we’ll draw from the correct answers a random winner. The winner will receive an autographed copy of the book, the DVD, and the Blue Sun T-shirt (from Joss Whedon’s Firefly) that Adam wore in the video (well, not that specific shirt, but a similar one that’s brand new!) It could be you!

Digital Disciple Preview: Deserted Islands (part 3 of 3)

Digital Disciple will be on the physical bookstore shelf and the virtual website shelf on May 1. You can pre-order it here. Here’s the third part of a three part preview that can also be found on my Facebook page and on Episcopal Cafe.com.

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One of the first great computer games, "Oregon Trail" ended more often than not with these words.

The new dimension of virtuality that the Tech has added to our lives has brought with it new locations, new situations, and yes, new opportunities and dangers. We are pioneers moving not along a riverbank in rickety covered wagons but along the virtual paths marked by cell towers and wi-fi hot spots. The lay of the land has changed, so to speak, and our new virtual environments are affecting us on multiple levels, which we will address over the course of this book. But before entering fully into our discussion of connection and isolation, we must address briefly the influence that the new frontier of the Tech has on our identity as social creatures.

To explore this influence, join me in a quick illustration. You attend a party; say, a company Christmas party. Spouses and children have been invited, so there’s a mix of generations milling about the lobby. On the buffet table sit cheese and crackers and one rather forlorn-looking vegetable tray. The eggnog comes in two varieties, one for grown-ups only. Bing Crosby croons softly over the PA system. Adults chat in that awkward way that always happens when home and work collide. One man’s laugh keeps rising over the low murmur in the room. Everyone attempts to avoid the mistletoe because that one creepy guy from the mailroom has claimed the territory underneath it.

Walking back from disposing of your paper plate and plastic cup, you notice a trio of people sitting on one of the lobby’s couches. A teenaged daughter of a middle manager, a graduate student doing her internship at the company, and a cubicle drone in his mid-thirties each occupy a cushion. But the cushions might as well be deserted islands for all the contact among the three of them. They sit facing forward, heads bowed. And all three are tap-tap-tapping away on their cell phones, completely disengaged from one another and from the conversations happening around them and from good old Bing dreaming of his white Christmas.

Ask yourself if you’ve ever seen this behavior. (Or perhaps, ask yourself if you’ve ever engaged in this behavior.) Now ask yourself if you think the three couch dwellers in the illustration are being antisocial. “Yes” is a perfectly acceptable answer: of course, they’re being antisocial. All those folks around talking, laughing, carrying on. So many conversations to join and eggnog bowls to hover around, and those three sit in a corner glued to their cell phones! Didn’t their parents raise them better?

If this is your reaction, I heartily agree with you, but take a moment to view the situation from another angle. Perhaps these three aren’t being antisocial. Perhaps they’re being (and I’m about to make up a word) trans-social. They may not be interacting with the bosses, employees, spouses, and creepy mailroom guys who inhabit the lobby during the Christmas party, but they are conversing with (possibly multiple) friends via text message. They are checking up on what their friends are doing and where they are doing it via Facebook and Twitter. They are being social—just not with the people close at hand.

At its broadest, trans-social behavior consists of socializing with people across a distance that makes face-to-face contact difficult. Of course, this has been around as long as there have been methods of delivering messages from one person to another: smoke signals, the Pony Express, and long correspondence like you find in Jane Austen novels. But as anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice knows, there’s an awful lot of anxious pacing around sitting rooms and garden paths during the excruciating period between letters. So beginning with telephone calls and eventually continuing with e-mails, the Tech added a dimension of immediacy to trans-social behavior. No more anxious pacing— just an upbeat “You’ve got mail” from a digital voice. With the advent of online social networking in the last decade, the Tech has combined this immediacy with widespread distribution, thus providing the infrastructure for trans-social behavior to explode.

Let’s turn back to our three trans-social folks and take a closer look. The teenager on Cushion One is updating her Facebook status with a rant about the creepy mailroom guy who keeps staring at her. The intern on Cushion Two is texting with three of her friends and showing remarkable aptitude for keeping all three conversations distinct. The cubicle drone on Cushion Three is selecting the starting lineup for his fantasy football game against the friend of a friend whom he has never met in person, but with whom he has been messaging spiritedly about the game on the league’s online forum.

The threesome sit on their respective islands, but it’s no matter that the islands are deserted because they have open lines of communication to distant friends. They may be isolated in the physical world, but in the virtual world they find connections that bridge the gaps between deserted islands. We’ll pick up the threads of connection and isolation in chapters 2 and 3; for now, let’s think for a moment about the environment that the Tech has redesigned and the people like me who have never known any other environment.

We older Millennials (along with the last few GenXers) began blogging before blogging was even a word. On websites including LiveJournal and MySpace, we poured out all the mundane secrets, petty jealousies, and terrible poetry that used to belong to the private diary under lock and key. In the past, none of those words would have seen the light of day, but the Internet enticed us to divulge these confidences with an artificial promise of phony anonymity. Then older folks started warning us about our tendency to overshare on the Interwebs. “If you put something online, it can never be fully removed,” they said. We adopted the appropriate shocked expressions until they went away, and then we joined Facebook and found a sleek new interface through which to bare our souls.

We extol the benefits of social networking: friends’ birthdays right there on our profiles, reconnection with that old high school crush, the ability to organize a flash mob to re-create the Thriller music video in the middle of the mall! But only in the last few years has the danger inherent in social networking begun to sink in: the inevitability of sexted nude photos winding up on the Internet, the ability for robbers to pick easy targets based on Facebook vacation updates, the omnipresence of cyberbullies online, and the data mining that follows every clicked link.

Social networking has enabled and amplified trans-social behavior to such a degree that all definitions of privacy are being rewritten. Until recently, private, direct, personal communication dominated; now it is giving ground to wide-spectrum, impersonal communication that may be private in nature but is public in disclosure. (Think about professional athletes who trash-talk over Twitter rather than on the field or court.) Indeed, the Internet is essentially a public place; however, to many of us Tech users, Millennials especially, it sure looks private because we interact with the Web while alone. For a Millennial blogger like me, I need to keep a personal journal in a physical spiral notebook just to be sure I keep myself from revealing things on my blog that aren’t appropriate for public consumption.

The Tech has designed this public-disguised-as-private environment, and Tech users interact socially in this environment. What should be an individual’s private identity often has public access enabled. The opportunities inherent in sharing socially across boundaries of distance are tempered by the dangers of ceding too much of oneself to the virtual world. Following Jesus Christ involves locating our identities first and foremost in the God who breathes those identities into our very souls. If we allow too much of our identities to escape into the ether of the virtual world, there may not be enough left to escape into God.