The Beginning of Wisdom
Dr. Bill Summerhill, Head of School
I bet a number of you know the 5 words which form the first part of this well known verse from Proverbs 1:7 in the Bible. What is the beginning of wisdom according to this ancient sage? “The fear of the Lord.” Last Sunday at church I heard a very insightful sermon delivered by Dr. Alyce McKenzie, an old acquaintance of mine from Pennsylvania and a professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX. Her words spoke volumes to me, some of which I’d like to share with you.
“The fear of the Lord” has always bothered me when reading the Bible, making me wonder, are we to tremble and shrink in terror before God? My theological school studies helped me realize that our English term, fear, doesn’t capture the depth and richness of the Hebrew word we commonly translate as fear, yirah. While there certainly is a shake in your shoes element yirah, it also reveals two other meanings when it appears in other biblical texts: awe, and reverence. To be awestruck by the creator of this incredible world we’ve been given, and to respond with reverence to the holiness and sacred possibility of life all around us—now that’s a “fear” I can understand, an awesome, reverential fear that I think for many of us is the beginning of wisdom.
You and I live is some of the best of times the human race has ever known. Yet at the same time we are reminded at every turn of the many threats we face that frighten and paralyze. Some of those fears seem justified, others appear to be amplified by the ubiquitous social influencers who know how to manipulate our attitudes, voting preferences and buying habits. If it is true that our character is most often revealed in what we fear, then we may go down in history as some of the most frightened people the world has ever known. We are bombarded by messages to frighten us about viral contamination, strangers taking over our jobs or moving into our neighborhoods, predators harming our children. We can go into crisis mode whenever spoken or texted graffiti makes us feel threatened, dismissed or unappreciated. We are tempted to structure our lives around those things and those people who confirm that we are winners and we belong, and we shut down, blow whistles or go to court when discouraging words reach our eardrums. Our fear and insecurity may be no better illustrated than by those affluent Americans who risked prison for paying a bounty to secure their child’s admission to a “named” university.
The question that Dr. McKenzie posed in her sermon hit the nail on the head for me: are any of these fears of ours the beginning of wisdom or the key to a healthy and happy life? Quite the contrary. They are, instead, the drivers that make us cynical, overly protective, send us into a panic or cause us to withdraw or seek solutions to life’s challenges through dangerous and even illegal means. And that is the world—the world of fears, many of them our fears, most of them fears of our creation—that our children know all too well.
Parents and schools have always been in the business of helping children understand the sources of their fears while empowering them to be strong and courageous in facing them. That involves modeling for them the two most effective fear-exposing tools we have that we, and we alone, can pass on to them: knowledge and trust. Both of these are embedded in the curriculum and culture with which we surround our students at Ascension. And when we can give our young people those life empowering tools, it is awesome and it does instill respect, perhaps even reverence, in their hearts. And in the book, that is the beginning of wisdom.